In an attempt to ensure public safety and provide equal access for all Santa Monica beach-goers, the Santa Monica City Council has unanimously approved an amendment to a current ordinance that will strengthen surf instruction regulations at the city’s beach.

Currently, the city law allows for groups of less than 20 children or any number of adults to operate a surfing school without a permit or contract.

Also, a limited number of permits have been available each year for larger groups on a first come, first served basis through the city’s Open Space Management Division.

The new modifications prohibit commercial surf instruction, except instruction offered through the city’s Community Programs Division — which provides a wide range of programs and services to residents — or those authorized by a limited number of city permits.

And city-operated and city-contracted programs will get first priority for the limited number of permits. Accredited educational institutions that provide surf instruction for school credit get second priority.

Now, all surf schools, regardless of size, will require a permit to operate.

Also, the city will collect a percentage of gross receipts from permitted surfing camps to offset city costs to maintain the beach, said Callie Hurd, the city’s Open Space Management Division manager.

“We are not looking to hinder people’s opportunities for attending a surf school,” says Hurd. “We’re just trying to ensure that surf schools are operated in a safe and equitable manner.”

About 15 people showed up at the council meeting to speak on the item, many concerned that stricter regulations are not the answer, will create monopolies and will also limit one’s choice of surfing instructors.

“I think there are many ways of creating a safe surf environment for personal and small groups without regulating all profit-making instruction and I think this should seriously be thought out before the city takes away and starts to govern the only part of Santa Monica that is not regulated,” said Santa Monica resident Tiffany Kilgore, who calls herself a ‘beginner surfer.’

Several surf instructors also spoke about the new regulations.

“You can’t regulate surfing,” said Rabbi Machum Shifren, known as “the surfing rabbi,” who has been surfing since 1961. “Surfing is a free-spirited thing. It’s the Alaska we have left to escape the madness that we’re in right now.”

Alan King, representing Aqua Surf School, located in Santa Monica, said the amended ordinance “will monopolize my industry and create inequity.”

“Many surf schools and instructors may no longer be able to earn a living,” King said. “I’ve talked to other surf schools and instructors today. I believe the majority, if not all of us, are willing to work together and compromise so we can decide and really organize our teaching loca- tions with Open Space Management and the lifeguards. Let’s work together as a community.”

Several parents also spoke about how much they preferred and valued the setting of smaller surf camps for their young children.

“The camp that my son attends, you can’t even really call it a camp, it’s a little program, it’s less than 20 [children],” said Santa Monica resident Roberta Brown. “I wouldn’t send a three-year-old any place else. If we start limiting the number of kids programs on the beach in the summer with surfing, by definition, they [surf schools] will have to become really large.

“And as it is now, the city program does not accommodate three- and four-year olds. I would think it would be a shame to lose that.”

Brown also questioned whether the city intends to set itself up to be an authority on who should be teaching surfing.

“I believe parents are the authorities in who should be teaching our children,” she said. “I believe it’s my responsibility to determine who’s qualified and who will give my child a safe experience. And I believe the smallest groups are the best experience, but that’s my choice. I think everyone should be able to make their own.”

Recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of surf schools operating on Santa Monica State Beach, which has caused overcrowding and unsafe conditions in the water and on the sand, Hurd said.

The main reason for the increase in schools is Santa Monica’s until-now liberal surf instruction policy.

It’s not typical that a city allows for groups of less than 20 children or any number of adults to operate a surf school without a permit, particularly in Southern California, Hurd says.

“I’ve been able to identify only two cities, in the County of San Diego, that don’t regulate surf instruction on their beaches,” says Hurd. “So you have a lot of people feeling pressured to come to Santa Monica as one of the only venues to teach surf instruction.”

This overcrowding has caused conflicts between swimmers, recreational or experienced surfers and those novice ones taking lessons at the beach.

“We have conflicts between permitted and unpermitted groups on the sand,” Hurd said. “We have conflicts between surf instructors and recreational surfers in the water. We have unsafe conditions in the water resulting from the sheer volume of novice surfers.

“We continuously get complaints from recreational surfers that they, A, are not able to surf in accordance with traditional surfing practices on the beach and, B, that it is a dangerous situation with the novice surfers there.”

The city believes that stricter regulations will increase water safety, ensure surfing instructors meet certain qualifications, and allow for a more balanced use of the public’s resource — the ocean.

Some traditional surf schools will no longer be able to operate and there may not be enough space to accommodate all the demand for surf instruction, Hurd said. Also, one-on-one surf instruction will require authorization.

Councilman Bobby Shriver noted that the regulation of the beach was a “tricky area.”

“No one wants to be the big, bad regulator,” he said. “There’s a finite resource and there’s a lot of demand for that resource now. It is a thing that needs to be managed in some way.”

But Shriver did not like the idea of the city taking a percentage of the gross receipts from those surf schools that receive permits.

“I think it makes the city look money-grubbing,” he said.

Councilman Ken Genser said he understood the need for “some regulation,” but also wanted to make sure that the needs of the community were reflected, as was a “real range of options” of surf instruction.

Genser was also curious of what standards were going to be used to screen surf instructors.

Hurd said that standards had not yet been finalized, but in her experience at California State Parks, the criteria used were CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certification, first aid certification and at least one instructor per “X-number” of students having American Red Cross lifeguard certification.

Also, all instructors receive criminal background checks. And there are a number of other criteria that have been recommended through the public process that the city has not yet investigated, Hurd said.

“I strongly support giving young people more access and appreciation to Santa Monica Bay,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown. “We in Santa Monica are the stewards to that bay. And the more young people who come to appreciate the ocean, and respect the ocean too, the better for us all. But as the band Pearl Jam sings, ‘There’s nothing worse than a gremmie out of control.'”

McKeown said he thinks the problem is two-fold — concentration and commercialization.

“So that’s really why we’re stepping in now, to figure out some way to get a handle on the concentration and control the commercialization of the most wonderful free-spirited sport there is here in a beach community — surfing,” McKeown said.

The City Council must now approve a second reading of the ordinance, which is standard procedure, at its next meeting, Tuesday, January 22nd.