Campers parked at Coleman Park enjoy unique bayside camping, with a public bike lane and walking path just feet away. These three spaces are among the 19 total spaces spread over three sites that the Harbor Department is renting out in a pilot program. These dry camping spaces go for $75 a night. Photo by Neil Farrell

A pilot program of renting camping spaces on Morro Bay’s waterfront to RVers got off to a slow start, but is gaining in popularity.

Harbor Director Eric Endersby told Estero Bay News, “First weekend [Sept. 11-12] we filled the Coleman lot, and I think we had one at the creek location. Last weekend (Sept. 19-20] we booked all 19 spots on Friday night, and almost all Saturday night, then just a few Sunday night.

“We currently have a few fire evacuation refugees sticking around too. Had some problems as expected the first weekend when we were newbies with a new program, but we’re getting the wrinkles ironed out. But nothing major — just a few rule-benders.”

The controversial program, which many local residents have spoken out against, is quickly becoming an election issue with some of the council candidates being asked how they felt about the program at a recent virtual forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. 

That’s probably fortuitous, considering that the pilot program is slated to run out at the end of the year, and was approved by the Coastal Commission as a stop-gap measure to assist the harbor department with revenues lost due to the Coronavirus Pandemic and economic shutdown. 

But the need for more revenues has loomed over the harbor department for some time.

With revenues not keeping pace with expanding budgets and a list of deferred maintenance, the Harbor Department was looking for ways to increase its revenues, which derive from tideland’s trust lease payments, dockage and slip fees, liveaboard fees and parking fees at the launch ramp.

One idea that hadn’t gotten much attention was to set up RV camping spaces at several spots along the Embarcadero and the beach. 

The initial proposal included several so-called “dry camping” spaces in the Morro Rock parking lot at the base of the monolith but were rejected, first by the Harbor Advisory Board and then the City Council, which also took the Target Rock parking area off the list.

In the end, the areas selected were Coleman Park, a former leased work yard near Morro Creek, and in the Triangle lot where the Maritime Museum is located. They’ve cleared out a total of 19 spaces for “dry camping,” meaning no utility hookups available — no water or electricity, and no sewer tank dump stations.

The Morro Creek area doesn’t have a bathroom and Coleman Park’s restroom has been condemned and closed for over a year, with rented portable outhouses put in place at both areas by the City. 

The Triangle lot has a single public restroom that’s closed at night and the City put out some port-a-potties there too. Campers are being advised to use the facilities in their rigs and presumably take their waste home with them as there are no dump stations.

In a previous staff report, Endersby estimated the department could bring in $100,000-$130,000 a year from the RV spaces. Nightly rates are $75 a night at Coleman Park (three spaces), and $65 a night for the Triangle Lot (seven) and the creek area’s nine spaces (see: www.morrobayca.gov/1020/Waterfront-RV-Tent-Camping for information on this program). The sites are being booked through “Bonfire.”

Having most of the sites rented in just the second weekend would seem like a good start considering the City currently is not doing any tourism marketing and isn’t likely to restart those efforts for some time.