3 marinas go to court to block 'vague' user-fee ordinance State law was enacted this year

November 22, 1992|By Dianne Bates | Dianne Bates,Contributing Writer

Three Havre de Grace marinas have gone to court to block enforcement of an ordinance imposing a 5 percent or $100 annual user fee for boat slips, docking and storage.

The plaintiffs, Tidewater Marina, Havre de Grace Marina and Penn's Beach Marina, claim that Ordinance 765 is "so ambiguous, vague and inconsistent that the marinas are unable to understand or comply with the ordinance with any reasonable degree or certainty."

A state law was enacted this year that authorized municipalities to impose a user fee for docking and storage of boats. Havre de Grace is the first community to set fees, which could generate as much as $80,000 in annual revenue for the city.

Marina owners claim the city has misinterpreted the state law by including "all rental charges for docking, slip rental and storage -- dry or wet -- of boats." The state law does not define boat slips. They also contend the ordinance does not specify how the marinas are to collect the fees and does not detail whether private and condominium boat slip owners are subject to the fees.

About 60 boaters attended a recent City Council meeting to protest the fee. Many do not live in Havre de Grace but argue that they contribute indirectly to city coffers by patronizing stores and restaurants. Several boaters said they were being singled out unfairly.

"We think we have been taxed enough," said Ralph Weep of Charlestown, spokesman for Top of the Bay Cruising Association, a regional organization of pleasure boaters. Mr. Weep was referring to fees paid as sales and fuel taxes. Boaters do not pay any fees directly to the city.

Some boaters have threatened to take their boats to other

marinas if the annual fee is imposed.

Al Chamberlain, a spokesman for four boater organizations representing 700 boat owners, said members will boycott any city that imposes a slip rental tax. James A. Collier, owner and operator of Penn's Beach Marina, said the tax could jeopardize revenue from local tourism.

"About 60 to 70 percent of the boats at my marina are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware," he said. "This issue is really ticking them off. They feel the town doesn't want them here."

City Manager Robert Lange disagrees.

"There's no way of knowing if these boaters will really boycott or if it will affect tourism," he said. "Only time will tell."

Havre de Grace Mayor Gunther Hirsch has lobbied hard for passage of a user fee law. Mr. Hirsch says marinas in the city generate $23,000 annually through marina property taxes. The city expects to raise more than three and a half times that figure from enforcing the user fee.

The plaintiffs are also upset about a provision of the ordinance that allows the city to fine marinas up to $400 per boat if boat owners fail to pay the fee. Mr. Lange said the city intends to enforce the fine. He added, however, that he did not foresee a problem with collection of the fee from boaters.

In addition, marina owners are concerned about their competition -- the city-owned Tydings Park marina -- the largest in the area.

Tydings charges about $23 a foot for slip rentals while the private marinas charge about $80 per foot, depending on the number of services provided.

Gary Pensell, owner and operator of Tidewater Marina, wants to know where the revenue from the fees will be spent. He said he feared the fees would be used to enhance the Tydings facility. In addition to marinas, the state law authorizes the city to use the revenue for water, law enforcement, public safety and fire services.

"I think [the fact that] the city . . . [is] in the marina business and [then trying to tax] . . . its competition is a real bad thing to do," Mr. Pensell said. "Havre de Grace being the only city in Maryland [imposing the new fee and being] one of the few cities in the marina business -- the whole thing sort of has an odor to it."

Mr. Lange, the city manager, explained that the fees would be put into a special revenue fund until the City Council decides how they are to be used.

A court hearing on the boat slip dispute is scheduled on Wednesday at Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air.

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