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.
"There is more than enough of us to satisfy the total demand. And we need the income to survive such a seasonal business."
Siegel, relaying information from City Atty. Phil Kohn, said restricting paddle instruction just to Laguna brick-and-mortar businesses could open the city up to legal challenges.
City staff consulted with four other Southern California cities — Newport Beach, San Clemente, San Diego and Encinitas — and the Los Angeles County's Department of Beaches and Harbors, and none of the entities have an ordinance specific to stand-up paddling.
Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson favored the first-aid and CPR requirements for instructors, along with liability insurance.
"The argument for having brick-and-mortar operators with knowledge of our coastline is critical," Johnson said. "I don't believe in a limit on hours."
City staff will compile notes from Wednesday's meeting and return to the Planning Commission to discuss the matter further at the April 9 meeting.
New use for Lang center room
The Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach may use a multipurpose room at Lang Park Community Center for one of its after school programs, the Planning Commission agreed unanimously Wednesday night.
Commissioners extolled the service the nonprofit provides while considering concerns from nearby neighbors over potential noise in granting a conditional use permit.
The club has a waiting list at its Bluebird Park location on Temple Terrace, making the opportunity to conduct activities at Lang appealing.
The club, under a potential lease agreement with the city, would gain exclusive use of the multipurpose room for its recreational, educational and artistic activities for children ages 6 to 10, according to a city staff report.
Hours would be 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays during the school year and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer. The club will provide full-time staff from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and part-time employees during program hours.
In January, staff held two public workshops — one at Lang and another at the nearby Vista Aliso senior living complex — to solicit feedback from residents and interested stakeholders.
Staff members said the Lang site provides South Laguna parents a convenient opportunity for their children without needing to drive to the club's main branch on Laguna Canyon Road or the Bluebird Park location.
The city installed an air conditioner inside the gym, negating the need to open windows and, they say, lessen noise from programs conducted inside the multipurpose room.
Lang Park Community Center, on Wesley Drive, also includes a small gymnasium, kitchen and conference room.
Adult fitness and adult painting classes, along with a church group that currently uses the multipurpose room, will move to the gym, while toddler gymnastics classes will transfer to the club's main branch, Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel said.
No classes will be canceled as a result of the club moving its after school program into the multipurpose room, according to the city.
Nearby residents were concerned about possible noise.
Janet Bales asked whether the children would be supervised during the entire program because she has witnessed unruly behavior.
"Things get thrown over fences into our yards even now," Bales said. "It's not very pleasant, nor is yelling of the kids. I don't dislike kids. I have four great-grandchildren."
Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Pam Estes said the kids are supervised the entire time, and employees carry walkie-talkies to communicate with one another.
Planning Commissioner Ken Sadler said his children used Lang Park for soccer games, which to him appeared to create more traffic than the proposed after-school programs.
"We all tried to park in a little parking lot and stay to watch the games," Sadler said of the Lang lot, which holds 26 parking spaces. "This is going to be more of a drop-off situation. I don't think traffic or parking will be a issue.
"As for noise, it's a public park. Kids can gather at the park unsupervised and this will be a supervised program. It's a good idea to have something more toward South Laguna."
Siegel added that the city has negotiated an agreement with the United Methodist Church to use 10 parking spaces for staff and parents during program hours.
Commissioner Norm Grossman reminded the audience that if there are problems, they can request another hearing to review the terms of the conditional use permit.