Laguna Beach's City Council chambers turned into an idea lab Wednesday night as the Planning Commission, city staff and the public dissected merits and drawbacks of possibly regulating the commercial arm of a popular water sport.
Interest in stand-up paddling, according to Marine Safety officials and business owners, has surged in recent years, with instructors from around the region heading to the shoreline to lead groups of people on the water.
It's these large groups of people that strain the lifeguard staff, who have to monitor paddlers so they don't collide with other swimmers or hit rocks and reefs, Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow.
"If you are stand-up paddling, you are acting as a vessel in a swimming area," Snow said.
The number of times a lifeguard has been needed to assist a paddler has greatly increased, from 14,000 from May through September last year to 150 during the same period five years ago, Lt. Kai Bond said.
Planning Commissioners, residents and business owners debated regulating commercial instruction, including limiting hours of operation and requiring permits, training (including first aid and CPR) and liability coverage.
"The goal is not to discourage stand-up paddling," Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel said during the meeting. Potential regulations would not target individual renters, only commercial classes, Siegel said.
"[Rentals] generally involve one or two people [entering the water]," Siegel said. "The primary issue involves groups of people coming down and all going out at one time and all coming in at one time."
Billy Fried, owner of La Vida Laguna and a Coastline Pilot columnist, said it's not always the people in formal classes who pose safety problems but also renters.
"Lessons are far more safe," Fried said, suggesting individual renters might not be adequately trained. "In north Laguna we have reefs. People who don't know how to steer [may hurt themselves]."
Stand-up paddle operators said they already self-regulate; clients must sign liability forms and prove they have taken training classes.
"We won't rent a board to someone who has never done it," Stand Up Paddle Co. founder Tommy Donnelly said.
Stand-up paddling is legal throughout Laguna, but lifeguards are required to assist users in designated swimming areas so they don't hurt themselves or others, Bond said.
Lifeguards aren't required to assist paddlers in surfing areas, he said.
Marni Magda, who often swims at Oak Street, said paddleboards are safety hazards if a wave hits a paddler.
"I do love this new sport, and 99 percent of the time stand-up paddlers go outside [the surfline] where no one else is," Magda said. "When a board gets loose, it's rolling in the surf, and if it hits someone it is deadly. "I've watched [a board] almost hit little children in the surf while a lifeguard is trying to take care of someone else."
City staff recommended limiting hours for the stand-up paddle commercial classes from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. from June 15 through September 15, but the idea didn't go over well with business owners.
"Tourists don't get up before 10 a.m.," Fried said.
Owners from four businesses, including Donnelly and Fried, sent a letter to the city saying at least eight companies conduct business on the beaches without paying property or business taxes.
"Several of them don't even live here, though they park their graphic vans here — for free," the letter said. "This is not only unsightly; it's also unfair to those of us with significantly larger investments in the city.