A controversial surf camp operating on public beaches in Southampton Village for more than a decade without approval may be granted a permit as early as August if village trustees can come up with guidelines to monitor and control the business.
Following a public hearing last week, the trustees approved an amendment to a section of the village code that prohibits commercial enterprises on village beaches, allowing a single surf camp to operate each summer on village beaches under strict supervision. With the new local law in place, the trustees now will turn their attention to setting guidelines for how a business will be chosen each summer, how many students will be allowed, and the days and times of operation.
The amendment, which faced some opposition, was sparked by the success of the Flying Point Surf School, which boomed last summer, with up to 60 to 70 students per class at different village beaches, depending on surf conditions. With the new rules in place, Flying Point Surf School, which is holding classes again this season, would be the only surf school allowed to operate for the balance of the summer, and the permit process will be opened up next year to allow other candidates to be considered.
At the hearing last Thursday, July 11, several trustees said they were in favor of the amendment because of the importance of teaching ocean safety to children. They added that it would take some time to establish guidelines—and while a permit would not be immediately granted to the Flying Point Surf School, it will continue to operate without a permit, as it has for more than 10 years.
“This has been going on for a long time, and last year it exploded,” Village Mayor Mark Epley said of the camp. “The last thing I am ever going to do is put something in place that will jeopardize my right to go down there with my family. We will put rules and regulations in place and do this in a location that protects the safety of the kids and everyone involved.”
Still, some residents are hesitant about the idea, citing safety, legal and density concerns, as well as issues related to beach access.
The school’s owner Shane Dyckman did not speak during the hearing.
One of the primary concerns for residents and village officials alike is the safety of everyone who uses the public beaches.
According to residents and local surfers not associated with the school, students are not being trained in the proper etiquette of surfing. Instructors, they said, are putting kids on surfboards that are not the right size, and they are pushing them out onto waves without respect for other people in the water.
The concern, according to one resident, Francis Adamczeski, is that a one day a surfer is not going to see a student, or it will be too late to stop when the surfer sees the student, and there will be a collision in the water leading to a serious injury. “What about everybody else in the water?” he said.
Parents of the students in the school disagree. Several in attendance last week said the students are always with an instructor and are not being pushed in front of anyone. They argued that the camp is a resource to the village, giving kids a monitored activity where they can learn to be safe in the ocean.
“I thought this was for a community business to look at a way to safely operate a business on the beach,” resident Kathy Thomas said. “I have yet to meet a single employee of this surf camp who is not a local person and is not someone I trust my kid with.”
Trustees said during the meeting that safety is their number-one concern. They said they see the value in having trained and licensed professionals teaching children about the dangers of ocean swimming and how to be good ocean swimmers.
One of the steps moving forward, Mr. Epley said, will be insuring that all instructors are licensed with the village and certified either as lifeguards or in CPR.
The second concern is the number of people on the beach at any given time. With 60 kids at a lesson, and three students per instructor, there are 80 people participating in the surf school at any given time. Taking into account parents who stay to watch, there can be upward of 100 people on the beach, plus members of the general public.
Last week, some residents said the surf school is hindering their ability to use public beaches, adding that some people are also parking in the public lots without permits. “The question here isn’t about safety or liability—you are taking our public resource,” one Hill Street resident, Jim McLaughlin, said. “I think it is a good thing to teach kids how to swim in the ocean, but I do not want my community turning into the Jersey Shore or Siesta Key.”
Moving forward, Mr. Epley said the camp will be kept much smaller, with a maximum of 20 students at one time. He added that the school will only be allowed to operate during specific times of day, and not on weekends, in consideration of other beachgoers.
There are legal angles that must be considered before the village authorizes only one surf camp. The trustees said this week that the regulations will have to be written so as to avoid a lawsuit from a competing business.
A bigger concern, Mr. Epley said, is making sure the surf camp has adequate insurance, so that it would be the surf school, and not the village, facing legal action in the event of an accident. The mayor said insurance will be discussed at length before any action is taken.
The camp will not be allowed to operate near the village picnic area on Meadow Lane—a promise that alleviated several concerns from residents. The picnic area was a staging ground for the camp last summer because there is a sandbar at that beach. That angered several people because the spot is popular with local families.
The picnic area, according to the mayor, has been the subject of two lawsuits regarding local, village and town rights to the area. The most recent lawsuit, he said, is still making its way through the court system, and as a precaution the picnic area will be off limits.
“It will not be on the picnic area,” he said. “I cannot emphasize that enough. It will be on the bigger village beaches in a more central location.”
While it is too late this summer to consider any other surf camp for the one permit, trustees said that next summer is a different story, and they are evaluating all of their options.
One idea that trustees and residents seemed to like was for the village itself to run the surf camp next summer, much as it does the concession stand at Coopers Beach. In the spring, the village would accept bid requests from multiple surf camps and then would authorize one based on the bids. With this system, the village would be able to more closely control operations.
If it moves forward with turning the surf school into a concession, the village would be obligated by law to accept the most reasonable bid, meaning the current surf school might not get the concession next summer.
Mr. Epley said the guidelines that have been discussed so far would limit the camp to 20 students, with one instructor for every three students. The camp would only be allowed to operate Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until noon, and parking regulations would be enforced at all village lots.
“We need to put a system in place that will allow this type of activity to occur and keep everyone safe,” the mayor summed up.