Boaters across the state face fee hikes come Nov. 1, with some renters looking at paying nearly double. 

That’s drawn the ire of boat owners who moor in some of the state’s 16 small boat harbors, managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

Meanwhile, DLNR has been unable to keep up with maintenance projects at its harbors. The department has identified about $310 million of capital improvement and maintenance costs around the islands, many of which have not been funded.

Ala Wai Harbor Waikiki Beach Hawaii Prince aerial 0319.
Ala Wai Boat Harbor is one of more than a dozen statewide where boat owners face steep fee increases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Last fiscal year, the harbor fund, which was meant to be self-sufficient, ended $2 million in the hole. Boating division administrator Ed Underwood said that the previous fee schedule, approved in 2011, was not enough to keep the fund afloat.

Some boaters think the new rates are too steep, and would rather have them phased in. A group of local boaters at the Ala Wai Boat Harbor held a protest last week and plan to do more in the coming weeks, said organizer Kate Thompson.

“They’re pricing out a lot of kamaaina boaters, just by making it out of reach of middle-income people,” Thompson said.

Thompson criticized the department for the steep fee increases and how DLNR has implemented them. She suggested that the department phase the rates in over a period of several years. She also took issue with the boating division’s new appraisal process for setting fees.

The department needs more money to deal with mounting expenses. But it’s still not clear how much revenue the fee increases will generate if they drive people away.

“It’s going to be hard to tell off the bat,” Underwood said. “We don’t know if this is going to cause people to leave.”

Past fee increases were minimal. At the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, for example, fees for boats went up from $5.25 a foot to $5.67 a foot between 2006 and 2011. The new per-foot fee will be $13.

For years, boaters have paid based on the length of their vessels. But under new rules approved in August, they’ll need to pay based on either the length of their boats or the docks, whichever is greater. That means some boaters will pay for space they aren’t using.

Both the steep fee increase and the new rules for calculating fees originated in a 2017 appraisal report.

The boating division got approval from the Legislature in 2011 to contract with an appraiser that could set new rates.

“In the past we did everything in-house, and we weren’t the professionals at the time to determine (docking fees),” Underwood said. “The appraiser is ensuring we come up with a fair return for the use of our resources.”

The use of an appraiser was meant to avoid resistance from the boating community, Underwood said. The appraiser, CBRE Inc. Hawaii, recommended fees based on similar private harbors around the state such as Kewalo Basin, Keehi Marine Center and La Mariana. The appraisal report also found that most of the private harbors charge for the greater of either the vessel or the slip.

The fees would have been even higher if they had been based on fair market value, Underwood said.

Even though the new fees take effect in a few weeks, boaters such as Thompson may still not know how much they need to pay. She said she’s still waiting on dock measurements from the harbormaster. 

Thompson is one of the boaters who will end up paying for dock space the boat doesn’t occupy. Her 36-foot O’Day 35 currently sits in a slip meant for boats up to 45 feet. She could shave about a foot off her bowsprit to fit into a smaller dock category, but then she would have to go back on a waiting list.

She said the department should have abolished the size categories before putting the new rules in place.

Boaters worry they could be priced out of the harbor, and for some who live aboard their vessels, forced out of their homes. On top of the higher mooring rates, boaters who live on their vessels will need to start paying $10 per person each night, an increase from $2.

Thompson has heard from several boaters who say they will have to give up their slips.

They’re also concerned that a private entity will eventually come in to manage the harbor, part of the boating division’s strategic plan for its small boat harbors across the state.

Underwood said that plan may require approval by the Legislature because it could affect the department’s civil service employees.

“We have to make sure we don’t affect their jobs by doing this,” Underwood said. “Anytime you outsource the work that could be done by a civil service employee, you have to justify it.”

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