2013-12-19 / Around Town

Municipal Court to Hear Mooring Violations

By Tom Shevlin

Apart from a meterless parking space on Thames Street in the summer, obtaining a city-owned mooring in Newport Harbor might just be the most coveted "get" in town.

And while finding a spot to park in the din of downtown might at times seem to take an eternity, that’s nothing compared to how long it takes to secure a mooring. Which is why, when a lessee becomes delinquent or is found to be violating the ordinances governing their mooring’s use, the city is typically quick to act.

With over 300 people waiting an average of 10-15 years for a mooring to open up across the city’s four mooring fields, Harbormaster Tim Mills says that he takes concerns related to mooring improprieties quite seriously.

“People obviously are waiting a long time for these moorings,” says Mills. “We try to do our best to make sure that we’re as up-to-date with their information as possible and that they’re being used in the right way.”

If they’re not, Mills has the discretion to issue citations, remove a name from the mooring waiting list, or revoke a leaseholder’s permit. More often than not, those decisions are met with an appeal.

Until this month, disputes arising over mooring claims had been handled by the city’s Waterfront Commission, a small but hardworking group of volunteers who for the most part tend to favor policy discussions above prosecution.

In the past, when a mooring would become subject to review either for non-payment, a questionable transfer, or abandonment, Mills would bring a complaint before the Waterfront Commission. As a quasi-judicial body, the commission would then have a range of options to choose from, including imposing fines or authorizing the city to pursue forfeiture.

However, the group would frequently act with leniency.

“It was an uncomfortable process,” says Mills. In fact, “Mooring appeals were probably one of the last things the commission wanted to see on the agenda,” he added.

For good reason. According to the harbormaster’s office, there are still over a dozen Newporters who have been waiting for a mooring to open up since 1998 or 1999. So when a mooring becomes available, it is an understandably coveted opportunity.

Tasking a small group of people (who by their nature are part of a slightly larger community of local boaters) with penalizing their friends and neighbors does indeed seem to have the hallmarks of inefficiency.

“I don’t think there were any special favors handed out,” Mills says, “but it’s a hard thing to ask” in a community as small as Newport.

Recognizing this dynamic, City Council members last week voted to approve a change in the ordinance governing mooring appeals.

Now, rather than appearing before the Waterfront Commission, alleged violators will have to appear in municipal court.

Waterfront Commission members embraced the change during a special workshop on a series of proposed ordinance revisions earlier this fall.

“I don’t think anyone liked it,” Councilwoman Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said of the old system.

Arguably one of the most popular ports on the Eastern Seaboard, Newport Harbor boasts 943 publicly owned moorings. About onethird of those are classified as commercial and thereby controlled and managed by private companies and individuals who are free to rent those moorings to the public.

The remaining 600 or so are designated as private, held by individuals or families who have gone through the proper application process with the city and enjoy extended leaseholder status.

Under the terms of the city’s harbor ordinance, private moorings are intended solely for the recreational use by the lessee, and may not be rented out, sold, or transferred to non-family members.

But as Mills can attest, oftentimes those rules go unheeded. Now, city officials are hoping that making those rules a matter for municipal court will begin to change that.

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