Proposed fee on slips upsets commercial marina owners


Desiree Bell is still recovering from the damage Tropical Storm Isabel did to her Annapolis marina. She distinctly remembers the sloshing sound of the 3-foot-deep water lapping against the walls of her office in September, and watching the boats sway in the wind while tied to pilings no longer visible.

Even with flood insurance, Bell expects to pay about $2 million for repairs at Mears Marina and two other marinas on the Eastern Shore. And in the wake of the damage, she might have to pay thousands more to the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is seeking a $50-per-boat slip fee for commercial marinas over state waters -- whether the slip is rented or not -- for wetland and waterways preservation.

State officials say the fee could raise about $2 million each year, based on their estimate of about 1,200 commercial marinas with a total of 39,300 slips.

The fee would hit particularly hard in Anne Arundel County, which has 311 commercial marinas, representing 28,162 slips. The county has the highest number of registered vessels in the state by homeport and by residence, according to Heather Lynch, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.

The money would help fund the Maryland Department of the Environment's Wetlands and Waterways Program and provide money to hire new employees -- the group has reduced its staff by 40 percent since 1991, said Gary Setzer, the program's administrator.

An 'inequitable tax'

But some marina owners argue the slip fee is a tax that could hurt the finances of commercial marinas. Several owners plan to attend Thursday's House Environmental Matters Committee meeting, where the proposal will be discussed.

Carol Durr, co-owner of the Hammock Island Marina in Pasadena, said she would be forced to pass the fee on to boaters who rent her 64 slips. The fees would cost her $3,200 each year -- more than she charges her customers with the largest boats to rent a slip.

"We would not try and absorb the cost," said Durr, who plans to attend the committee meeting. "This is a very inequitable tax. This is not taxing the size of the boat or the value of the boat."

Setzer said it makes sense for marina owners to pay to use state-owned waters.

"You're talking about a marina that could be covering acres of state property, and it's property that's held in trust for all the citizens of Maryland," he said. "If you wanted to open a concessions stand at a state park, a certain amount of your profit would go to the state for allowing you to use their park, but on the marina side, there isn't the same type of payment back to the state."

But Susan Zellers, spokeswoman for the Marine Trades Association of Maryland, said marina owners could see a drop in revenue if boaters decide to dock their boats in places where there is no fee -- like their neighbor's dock or Virginia.

"A lot of boaters are going to make decisions as to whether they will want to keep their boats in marinas," she said. "If people can keep their boats at their neighbor's and not pay the fee, that could affect their capacity."

Nolan Redd, assistant manager for the Chesapeake Harbour Marina in Annapolis, said his 200-slip marina would pay $10,000 a year in fees. He said his marina already is below 90 percent capacity.

"Ten thousand dollars is a big price for us to pay," Redd said. "That'd be a good chunk of change."

This would not be the first time Anne Arundel County marinas faced drop-offs in business. The county first imposed a tax in 1971 that required boaters to pay 10 percent of the boat slip cost. By 1995, the tax had been reduced to 4 percent, and was repealed in 1997 after marina owners complained they were losing business to counties without a fee.

Residential docks

Marina owners also said the proposal disregards the personal dock owners who house friends' and neighbors' boats for free or reduced prices.

"Residential slips are charging their friends fees to house their boats and they aren't subject to any of the environmental regulations, but they certainly won't be paying the fee," said Robin Brashears, owner of Ventnor Marine Service Inc. in Pasadena. "We have to pay so many other fees, that doesn't hold water."

Zellers said 19 percent of the 206,000 registered boaters in Maryland dock their boats at commercial marinas. The rest are stored on trailers, community slips or private property, she said.

Setzer said that it would be impractical to levy a fee on residential dock owners.

"Obviously it would be an enforcement nightmare to police individuals who let friends use slips for free," he said. "It's a legitimate complaint, but I don't think it's one that we'll be able to address."

Regardless of which boaters are targeted, the boating industry is not solely responsible for wetlands degradation and should not bear the entire brunt of protecting it, said Rod Jabin, manager of the 18-acre Bert Jabin Yacht Yard in Annapolis.

"I think it's a very segmented way to go about raising funds for wetlands," he said. "This could cause a great rift between the governor and marina owners."

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