A proposed surf school ordinance aims to lighten the crowds at Cowell’s
With its ideal surfing conditions, Cowell’s Beach is the perfect place for beginners to learn the sport. It’s also the only beach in the City of Santa Cruz surf schools can take their students.
Instructors and students keep mostly to the inside, taking on the gentle waist-to-shoulder high waves that form against a small triangular sandbar near the rocks, while more experienced surfers stay to the outside. Current regulations in surf school permits limit the total number of students in the water from all schools to 36 at a time; however, with large groups of local surfers vying against tourists and students for waves, some say long summer days turn Cowell’s into an overcrowded nightmare.
“This past summer I got complaints that there were 75 to 85 students in the water at certain times, [and] of people being pushed out in front of other people, and students not wearing identifying jerseys,” says Carol Scurich, recreation superintendent at Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation.
Since August, Parks and Recreation staff have been meeting with community members to work on an ordinance which would mandate better enforcement of the regulations, and, Scurich hopes, alleviate the overcrowding.
With both recreational surfers and the surf schools disagreeing on details of the proposed ordinance, it was pulled off a February city council meeting agenda in order to allow more time for public hearings and alterations to the proposal.
Dylan Greiner, owner of Santa Cruz Surf School, is afraid of what the new ordinance might mean for business, and questions its ability to affect the crowding issue.
“As it is, there are times in July where we are turning people away on a regular basis, saying ‘you’re too late, we’re full,’” says Greiner. “These are people who wanted the guidance and training who are now going to go rent equipment and go in on their own. They are here to surf, [and] they’re not just going to go away because they don’t have
For this reason, says Greiner, stricter guidelines for surf schools may not necessarily be effective in relieving overcrowding in the water and may leave many beginners without supervision.
“You can fill [the waves] up with a thousand rentals and no one will say anything because there is no way to regulate the number of people renting equipment from the beach concession or anywhere else,” he says.
The Cowell Beach Concession is on a special contract with the city, whereby they pay the city 10 percent of gross revenue and are the only organization permitted to rent equipment on the beach. This contract, awarded once every five years, has gone to the current vendor, Club Ed, for the past 20 years.
The current permits and vendor contract have been extended until the new surf school regulations are set in place. Parks and Recreation will be accepting beach concessions proposals for the next five-year term through March 24.
Students of the organization with the winning concessions bid this year will not be included in the proposed 44 students at a time maximum, nor will the vendor be subject to citations for violating other surf school regulations. (Although the number of students allowed in the water will increase from 36 to 44, Scurich says heightened enforcement will actually mean fewer students will be out at one time.)
Some community members have argued that this will offer an unfair advantage to the beach concession; however, Scurich says that, as per contract, the concessions permit holder must follow all regulations that apply to surf schools, including the four-to-one student to instructor ratio and not exceeding a maximum number of students from their school in the water at a time (although their specific number has yet to be determined).
“[They] would not be cited under the ordinance, but [they] would be in violation of their contract, in which case we could terminate the agreement,” Scurich says.
Concerned residents from all sides of the debate met for a public hearing at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Thursday, March 10 to discuss what people would like to see in a revised ordinance proposal.
While recreational surfers are in favor of stricter guidelines, they do not support the expansion of the number of total allowed students at one time to 44.
“It all boils down to safety,” says surfer Kim Stoner. “There are times when people who live in the area can’t even take their kids surfing because it’s too crowded; the kids are afraid and intimidated.”
Stoner has been meeting with other recreational surfers to draft an alternative proposal which addresses their concerns as local residents including, limiting the days and hours the beach is open to surf schools.
“There are a lot of recreational surfers who are just so fed up they want to ban the schools altogether, but those of us who have been working on this and coming to these meetings want to instead find some kind of compromise,” he says.
Whereas the current regulations are informal and can be ignored, they would become official and legally enforceable as an ordinance. The student cap on each school has yet to be determined but may be based on the number of instructors at that school and the number of permits issued.
“Limiting the number of people per school [in the water] at a time is reasonable, if that number is reasonable. … If we were limited to 12 at a time, that would be the fewest I could work with,” says Greiner. “If the number is eight, I will be getting citations every day in July.”
The proposed ordinance calls for citations to be issued on a sliding scale from $100 for the first infraction, $250 for a second and $500 for each subsequent violation.
Scurich hopes that the council can hear the proposal in April. If approved, it would then be heard at a second consecutive city council meeting and take effect one month later, at which time 2011 surf school permits will be issued and the new concessions contract will be chosen.
“No one is in a rush, if we just push things through people will end up unhappy,” Scurich says. “But with the season right around the corner we want to the discussion going and keep things moving at a good pace.”
photo credit: Keana Parker