making room for kitesurfers

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

making room for kitesurfers:

city seeks to balance sport and public safety

The City took a stab at détente between kitesurfers on Miami Beach and beachgoers who say they create a safety hazard in the 24-25th Street and Collins Avenue area. While the tension in the room was palpable at times during a public meeting this morning, both sides seemed willing to find a way to live together.
 
The issue came to a head at the end of October when a kitesurfer bumped the back of two beach chairs. While minor, the incident escalated complaints from residents about the kitesurfing activity in the area and led the City to put a new lifeguard station at 26th Street. As a result of rules about line of sight for lifeguards, the kitesurfers had to move further north to launch. Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez raised the issue of a potential ban.
 
Today, residents, kitesurfers, and beach vendors gathered to brainstorm ideas for resolving the conflict in a way that provides access for those participating in the sport and safety for beachgoers.
 
Rosen Gonzalez kicked off the meeting saying, “The reason I sponsored the legislation is purely public safety.” She said when she heard about the October accident, “I could picture the board coming down on my neck and spine.” 
 
That said, she told the group she – and the City – wanted to listen to ideas. “We want you to be able to kitesurf. [At the same time,] we don’t want anyone to be endangered.”
 
Code Compliance Manager Sarah Saunders said the goal was to discuss potential locations for kitesurfing and rules and management for the sport on Miami Beach. She asked the group to present all ideas which Staff could further research and present to the Commission for its consideration in January. Bottom line, she said, “We want to come to a common ground.”
 
The fast growth of the sport was underscored by Roman Wunderlich, President of the Miami Beach Kitesurfing Foundation. Started in the 1990s as a combination of wakeboarding, sailing, and surfing, the sport had 250,000 participants in 2006. By 2016, he said, there were 2.5 million kiteboarders. The Miami area is tied with New York City for having the second largest kite population. San Francisco has the largest. But, Wunderlich said, New York has 68 kite launch areas and San Francisco 48, while Miami has three. One of those is in a parking lot which damages the kites, he said, so it doesn’t get much use. The other two are at 76th Street and Crandon Park.
 
As the sport matures, he noted, “It’s getting increasingly safe … It’s becoming a lot easier as we establish rules.”
 
The local kitesurfing foundation “promotes safety and preserves access to kiteboarding on Miami Beach,” he said, adding that the group participates in beach cleanups and toy giveaways. “We always try to do our part as a community, not just as kitesurfers to enjoy the sport.” The group is a place that newcomers and visitors can go to for an understanding of the local rules which differ from place to place. “We try to share our knowledge,” and, he said, “We try to self-police as much as we can.”
 
The Foundation has suggested rules for safe kiteboarding on Miami Beach: Stay 200 feet from shore, 50 feet from swimmers. Never fly a kite over the beach – it is for launching and landing only. And they ask that kiteboarding access be permitted near lifeguard towers for kitesurfer safety.
 
He reminded the group, “We are all taxpaying citizens. We train,” but he said, “We also need your help.” He said there had been only a “handful of accidents over the past year” involving a small fraction of practicing kiteboarders. In fact, he pointed out, “One local kiteboarder recently saved three swimmers” who were in distress.
 
“If we’re all pushed into one place, that’s going to cause safety issues,” Wunderlich said. “We need space. We need different locations … You can’t tell the entire community they need to stop kitesurfing.”
 
Morgan Blittner, co-owner of TKS, a company contracted by Boucher Brothers to teach kiteboarding at 76th Street, said one of the biggest safety issues is “Illegal commercial operators take students … Beginners are the issue. They are not highly trained kitesurfers.”
 
TKS co-owner Juan Pavan suggested separate locations for commercial operations, training, and recreation.
 
Blittner said it is easy to separate out beginners from those who are proficient as the sport recognizes certifications from levels 1-7. Level 3 is considered “self-sufficient”.
 
Discussion got a bit heated when kiteboarders discussed their preference for access to all areas of the beach. Steve Boucher, owner of Boucher Brothers which operates beach concessions, pointed out the City cannot grant access to areas controlled by upland property owners for launch sites. “I think you guys need your own space,” he said, “but it’s not going to happen behind a property that you don’t have the right to … It’s going to be difficult to get permission.”
 
Kiteboarder Lauren Lipcon replied, “I think it’s going to be difficult to take it away. It’s a public beach.”
 
“The City is not trying to take away your rights,” Saunders interjected. “We’re trying to have an open dialogue.”
 
Lipcon noted she kiteboards in Mid-Beach where she lives and wants to continue to do that.
 
Bruno Perez echoed Lipcon’s sentiment, “We want to kite where we live.”
 
“One kiteboard area in Miami Beach is unrealistic and it would be unsafe,” Jim Spiers said. “I pay taxes and live where I live because the beach is my backyard.”
 
Boucher noted, “The beach is not very wide in some spots. We’re all going to have to live together. We’re all going to have to work together to find space.”
 
Eventually, a collective list of suggested locations emerged from the attendees who moved between two breakout groups on location and rules.
 
Boucher suggested 46th Street where the City could reserve some parking spaces in the lot there. “Not a lot of people go there,” he said. While many of the participants suggested 34th Street in front of the Faena Hotel, Boucher said that location “is super open”, but Faena has “plans for a big beach concession. It’s not a long-term solution.” He also urged the group to look at North Shore Open Space Park. “There’s a park there that no one goes to.”
 
When it was the second group’s turn to discuss locations, they focused on being specific about areas for beginners and schools to operate. Using level 3 as the benchmark for separating the beginners from those considered self-sufficient, they suggested:
 
83rd Street for levels 1-3
76th Street, levels 1-3
55th Street for levels 2-3
34th for levels 1-3
 
The 24-25th Street area that raised the most concerns was suggested for the more experienced kitesurfers, those at level 3 and above.
 
“We kite there because of the angle,” Wunderlich said. “It allows us to kite in the south wind. Because of the depth of the beach and proximity to buildings, it should be a level 3.”
 
Triton Towers is a large condo building with 600 units at 28th Street and Collins. Sara de los Reyes, President of the Triton Towers Condominium Association, said there are many families with children on a very narrow stretch of sand. She said the kitesurfers get too close to kids in the water and she often has to go out and tell them to move further out. When they land, she said, “They come on the beach, close to the kids.”
 
“The beach chairs are right there. We don’t have space on the beach. We lost a lot of beach because of the jetty,” de los Reyes said. The proposal to allow kitesurfing in the 24-25th Street area for experienced kiteboarders only was one she said she could get behind. “There’s not enough space so you have to be an expert to get out there. I’m okay with that [level 3 requirement].”
 
On the issue of rules, perhaps the biggest concern was who would enforce them: lifeguards, park rangers, marine patrol, police officers?
 
Vincent Canosa, Miami Beach Ocean Rescue Chief said, “We don’t have the time to leave our towers. We need somebody else to handle that.” He pointed out that most rescues occur on the days that are best for kitesurfing.
 
Ideas for managing kitesurfers included having color-coded streamers to hang from kites that identify a surfer’s proficiency level and a registration process to prove a kiteboarder is certified at level 3.
 
Lipcon liked the idea of identifying surfers by ability for enforcement purposes. “The liability is on the person, not on the whole community. If a dog bites someone, you don’t ban all dogs. If an umbrella pokes someone’s eye out, you don’t ban all umbrellas. We need to focus on the people creating the problem.”
 
A concern repeated several times was whether the City had enough resources to enforce a new set of rules. Spiers asked, “What about people showing up on the beach from out of town? Who’s going to police them?” The ideas discussed for registration would require the City to “set up a whole infrastructure to monitor and enforce. It’s not practical. I think it’s more important to focus on unsafe people. The resources need to be there,” Spiers said.
 
Pavan of TKS pointed out getting rid of” illegal concessions can change a lot. Less people will go there” to 25th Street, he said.
 
The group, which was scheduled to meet for two hours, spent an extra half hour discussing ideas and then lingered to talk with each other after. At least for today, détente may have been achieved. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Now it is up to City staff and leadership to craft the policy to make it real. 

[Article updated December 1 to reflect correct launch sites at 76th Streets and Crandon Park (not 26th Street).]

Below: Kitesurfers at a launch space.