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A Surf Turf War in Seal Beach

Recreation: Windsurfers and surfers are in a contentious debate over who can ride the waves at the San Gabriel River mouth. Each side has an ally on the City Council.

July 24, 1999|BONNIE HARRIS and DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's a municipal ruckus that only Southern Californians could possibly understand. The mayor of Seal Beach is a windsurfer. A fellow councilman is a surfer.

They can pass resolutions on street improvements and order traffic surveys and decide how much of the city's money to set aside for various environmental studies. But they can't see eye-to-eye on the latest issue tearing at the seams of their tiny city: Who gets a little spit of water offshore and for how long--the windsurfers or the surfers?

No one so far is budging in this battle of the boards. The windsurfers are outnumbered and fighting for a chance to sail on a quarter-mile-long stretch of water in Seal Beach, where the perfect mixture of wind and waves makes for some of the best rides between Malibu and Mexico.

But the water rights have belonged for a decade to the surfers--protective of every inch of every wave.

They've tried to negotiate over the table, to reach some kind of compromise like grown-ups, but that just led to shouting matches.

Finally they went to their City Council for help. The issue might seem lightweight to some, but in Seal Beach City Hall, Mayor Paul Yost and Councilman Shawn Boyd each take their personal turf war very seriously, as do the hundreds of constituents who brought the case before them.

"The whole thing sounds childish, I know," Yost said. "I mean, it's really about sharing, right? Yes, but you see, no one really wants to share. And it's my job to keep the city in one piece."

One thing everyone agrees upon is that the tight quarters of the San Gabriel River mouth make it unsafe for simultaneous surfing and windsurfing. In 1989, the City Council passed an ordinance restricting the area to surfers, and designated to windsurfers a 600-foot-long stretch of coastline south of the river mouth.

For years, the two groups coexisted that way. Surfers and lifeguards even overlooked, for a while, the handful of windsurfers who would sneak into the river mouth on the windiest days.

But as the sport gained in popularity, more windsurfers started to steal time in the river mouth. Lifeguards began ordering them out, at the very vocal requests of surfers. Verbal fights broke out. So did a few shoving matches.

"It was getting pretty hairy," said Dustin Frank, a 27-year-old Newport Beach resident who enjoys both sports. "It got so if you even started rigging up [to windsurf], there'd be surfers screaming at you before you even got into the water."

Then Seal Beach lifeguards moved to introduce some peace on the beach. When winds reached at least 15 mph and there were fewer than six surfers in the river mouth, lifeguards would raise a flag giving the OK to windsurfers to use the coveted area.

But soon windsurfers complained that the flag wasn't raised enough--roughly 10 times all last year.

"The lifeguards, they're all surfers too," said Larry Taugher, a Newport Beach resident who has windsurfed Seal Beach for 12 years. "They don't want to deal with us anymore."

To surfers, the issue has come down to numbers and local turf ties. First of all, there are more of them. And they contend that most of the windsurfers who want to use the river mouth are not even Seal Beach residents.

Moreover, surfers say they have the law on their side. Councilman Boyd made it clear several weeks ago that, as far as he's concerned, the 1989 ordinance is already in place.

If you start changing the rules for the windsurfers, Boyd said, where will it end?

"Next we'll have the skateboarders saying, 'I want to skate on Main Street two hours every day,' " said Boyd, who has surfed the river mouth for 14 years.

Bill Doane, the mayor pro tem, would not get in the middle of the debate.

"I'm not a surfer and I'm not a windsurfer, and I'm just going to wait and see what these guys do," Doane said. "Seems to me we can work something out, even with Mr. Yost and Mr. Boyd representing opposing sides."

Surfers say they have long been kicked around by restrictive communities, and a surfing ban that was leveled in Seal Beach in the 1960s is a bitter reminder to defend every inch of turf to the end. The ban was gradually lifted over 15 years, but many restrictions remained.

"If it comes to push or shove, we're ready," said Robert Howson, who owns a Seal Beach surf shop. "We'll shove if we have to because the law is clear on this and it favors us."

Howson, like many of the hundred or so surfers who have joined the fight, blames Yost for a communication breakdown that has kept both groups from reaching an agreement.

"Just because we have a mayor that windsurfs and his friends who are among the well-heeled here in town, this has gotten out of hand," Howson said.

But Yost said he is also a surfer and has no intention of kicking either group out of the river mouth.

When Boyd made his recent declaration to enforce the 10-year-old ordinance "to the T," Yost said he was on vacation--in the surfing paradise of Hawaii.

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