After Three Captains owner Larry Fortado won nearly $300,000 in arbitration from the San Mateo County Harbor District, the harbor commission agreed to permit the fish buyer to construct a much-contested hoist on Johnson Pier in Princeton.
Harbor commissioners were conflicted about whether to do so at their regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 17, even though the arbiter ordered them to allow the hoist.
Three fish buyers currently operate on the pier and, per their lease agreements, each is permitted to have two hoists that allow them to unload fish and crab from the fishermen they buy from.
Over the past several years, Fortado has been requesting a second hoist. In 2014, he was eyeing a spot on the pier’s southern side and then, more recently, a new location on the north section. In 2016, harbor commissioners approved the more northern location but took back the approval at a meeting in February of this year.
Concern for public safety over the hoist’s location and creating a potentially unfair advantage were two of the main reasons for rescinding the approval, commissioners say.
Frustrated with the commission’s actions, Fortado took up the matter with an arbitrator who issued the $270,000 demand earlier this month.
At the meeting, Commissioner Sabrina Brennan exdpressed frustration with the position the district was in.
“At the end of the day what we’re now being asked to do is agree to an unfair business decision,” she said. “Something that’s going to disadvantage a group of other fishermen and perfectly tee off another lawsuit.”
Commissioner Tom Mattusch, who also works as a charter boat captain at Pillar Point Harbor, didn’t comment on questions of safety or unfair business advantages but underscored a demand for hoists in the Princeton harbor.
“Right now, we’re short of hoists no matter how you look at it,” said Mattusch. “If you haven’t been there at the start of crab season to see how crazy it is … people have to wait for hours, or days even, when everyone comes in loaded with crab the first couple times.”
A majority of the four commissioners present appeared to be leaning toward not approving Fortado’s hoist, but, after an impromptu closed session held during the meeting, they emerged in fear of further litigation if they didn’t permit the hoist.
“I voted for this because I’m being forced to vote for this,” said Commissioner Ed Larenas. “We’re stuck with this terrible decision.”
Brennan provided the one dissenting vote to maintain a consistent record of votes against the hoist, she said. Brennan said that would strengthen her argument if she decided to contest the hoist’s approval when, and if, Fortado goes forward with the project and it is placed on the California Coastal Commission agenda.
Larenas said he would be contesting the hoist at the Coastal Commission meeting too, and encouraged any of the fishermen in attendance to do the same.
Safety concerns related to the hoist involve forklifts and trucks in the shared space and its proximity to the public.
Commission President Virginia Chang Kiraly highlighted safety concerns and interest in not appearing to favor one competing business over another. Kiraly said she was initially going to abstain but ended up voting for the hoist to protect San Mateo County residents in another way.
“The public will also win if we don’t have to pay another cent,” she said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill on this anymore.”