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Angry Residents Sink Police Chief's Surf Cam

Beaches: Images are taken off Web over fear of luring crowds to Palos Verdes.

June 07, 2002|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For three months and 12 days, the video camera panned the waves that peel across one of Palos Verdes' most popular surf spots, displaying the images over the Internet and beckoning anyone who saw them to visit the beach.

The "surf cam" was the police chief's idea. He thought that if it were trained on the beach it would help deter fights that had been breaking out between local surfers fiercely protective of their turf and outsiders brazen enough to crash the beach. The camera became a public symbol of the chief's campaign to end the violence and vandalism associated with the notorious locals and their credo: If you don't live here, don't surf here.

This week, the camera came down.

City officials said it was a casualty of a well-orchestrated campaign to scare residents into believing that the online images of the gorgeous coastline and graceful waves would draw hordes of rowdy surfers to this neighborhood of multimillion-dollar, bluff-top homes.

Giving in to community pressure, the Palos Verdes Estates City Council voted unanimously last month to take down the camera, which had been provided free to the city by Surfline. com in Huntington Beach.

Instead, the council decided to buy its own camera for $11,000. It will do the same thing as the Surfline camera, monitoring activity on the beach and in the water--only no one will be able to see what's going on except the police.

The decision came after raucous City Council meetings and a door-to-door campaign by members of the Bay Boys, a multigenerational surf gang that jealously guards the waves at Lunada Bay and other prime surf breaks.

The Bay Boys stirred up local concerns by leafleting neighborhoods with warnings of an impending crush of surfers who would clog residential streets, strip naked as they changed into wetsuits, urinate in bushes and leave trash.

At one meeting, Bruce R. Geernaert, a Palos Verdes resident and retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge, grew so passionate as he listed his objections to the commercial web camera that police had to remove him from the council chambers, city officials said.

Another Palos Verdes resident, a surfer who lives near Lunada Bay, joined with an attorney to sue the city over the matter.

The lawsuit charges that the city should have performed an environmental impact review of the "potentially significant impact on residential neighborhoods due to the traffic, noise and congestion that will result from broadcasting coastal conditions on the Internet."

But for the three months the camera was operational, the hordes never came, said Police Chief Timm Browne. "We never had any crowds or any problems."

Sean Collins, president of Surfline, said none of his nearly 100 surf cams posted in California and elsewhere has significantly changed the crowds at a surf spot. Most of these cyber surfers watch the streaming video of waves for entertainment, he said. It's done during business hours. Mostly from work.

"It was a full-on scare tactic," Collins said. "The bottom line is that the locals don't want outsiders coming in. They put tremendous pressure on elected officials to pull it [the camera] out. They won. Localism works."

The council's decision short-circuits plans to install another Surfline camera overlooking Lunada Bay.

The camera was going to be sponsored by the South Bay chapter of Surfrider, a surfer lobbying group.

Members from Torrance, Redondo and Hermosa beaches have complained bitterly over the years of gang-style intimidation from rich surfers on the hill in Palos Verdes to discourage surfers showing up from the flatlands.

Neither Rosemary Humphrey, the city's mayor, nor Fred Mackenbach, mayor pro tem, returned calls seeking comment.

City Manager Jim Hendrickson said city leaders hope the new closed-circuit camera will also act as a deterrent.

City leaders were sorry to lose the free camera, but had little choice after ceaseless concerns that it would "bring droves of people during high surf, damage property and bring deleterious effects."

"We did not detect any of that," Hendrickson said. "But perception can become reality."

City officials sought out Surfline in February after a beach brawl brought public attention to the territorial tensions between groups of surfers.

The camera was installed on the police chief's house, one of several city-owned homes perched on a bluff that overlooks two surf spots called the Cove and Indicator.

The camera panned the beach where a brawl had broken out involving 43-year-old Tim Banas, a surfer from Hermosa Beach and a local surfer less than half his age. Although the facts are in dispute, the fight ended when Banas' teenage son, Tommy, threw a rock that lacerated the skull of a man grappling with his father, according to police reports.

The altercation resulted in criminal charges against Tommy Banas.

It also prompted a lawsuit by Timothy Banas against the city of Palos Verdes Estates, five identified local surfers and up to 50 other unidentified members of a clique known as the Dirty Underwear Gang.

Among other things, the lawsuit aims to designate the clique as a criminal street gang under the state's Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, a law used to combat inner-city gangs.

If that happens, attorney Michael F. Sisson said he will ask a judge to ban members of the group from congregating or surfing at Palos Verdes prime surf breaks known as Haggerty's, the Cove, Indicator and Lunada Bay.

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