Rules for surfers are unchanged

When 66-year-old Lance Jencks first began bodysurfing at the Wedge in Newport Beach, he would often arrive at 7 a.m. and stay until 11 a.m.

Jencks wanted to get out there early because he loved the morning's glassy waves, he explained to the city's Parks Beaches and Recreation Commission during its meeting Tuesday night.

But so did everybody else, be they equipped with a surfboard, bodyboard, skimboard or, like Jencks and his bodysurfing peers, a pair of flippers — at most.

Following two hours of emotional public comment about who should be allowed to surf where and when, commissioners decided to leave current surfing rules in Newport Beach just as they are, including those that govern the Wedge.

Potential changes ranged from the shortening of exclusive swim time between 40th and 44th streets to the establishment of a small skimboard zone near Balboa pier. But the Wedge bore the brunt of the passionate remarks.

The vote was unanimous, with commissioners Kathy Hamilton and newly appointed Laird Hayes absent, and seemed just another step in a decades-long fight over the same issue.

Located at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, where the west harbor jetty extends from the shore, the Wedge is cherished by surfers of all kinds for infamous monster waves that some claim to be unique to the world.

"I used to be there in the morning," Jencks continued, his voice shaky. "And then at some point you kicked me out."

Bodysurfers have always been allowed in the water, but they say they need time to themselves because surfers pose a safety hazard and often beat them to the waves.

The Wedge is of particular importance to members of the bodysurfing community because they say it offers a chance for promotion of a sport that otherwise receives little attention.

A 1985 ordinance banned flotation devices from the Wedge at all times. Current rules prohibit flotation devices — surfboards, bodyboards, skimboards — to be used at the Wedge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 through Oct. 31.

Up for debate Tuesday night was whether to change the ban to 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Memorial Day weekend (the last Monday of May) through Labor Day (the first Monday in September), a suggestion put forth by a Blackball Working Group, which had been charged with reviewing surfing rules throughout the city.

"The recommendations are just like getting hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat for us," bodysurfer Mel Thoman, who was not able to attend the meeting, said in an interview Tuesday. "They know what we've been through and what we're fighting to keep."

More than 80 people attended the meeting Tuesday, including residents from Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach.

They spoke to the concepts of safety and fairness, with board users arguing that they too deserve access to the primo spot.

Skimboarder Aaron Peluso suggested that perhaps the days could rotate among different surfing factions for exclusive use of the waves.

The debate evoked the disagreements surrounding the wood-burning beach fire rings, noted Commissioner Roy Englebrecht. He asked that the commission not ruin the city's image by rushing into a change that was not thoroughly vetted.

"We're at another historic decisions because we're talking about a historic landmark," Englebrecht said. "You don't get too many chances. This is a second chance to do the right thing."

In the rest of Newport Beach, currently a black and yellow blackball flag

generally prohibits the use of boards from noon to 4 p.m. June 15 to Sept. 10. Changes to this policy were also discussed and voted down as part of the decision.

The working group that set forth the ideas included members from the Police and Fire departments, the recreation and senior services department and the parks beaches and recreation commission Vice Chair Ron Cole.

Members of that group held a public meeting in October, met with various interest groups and solicited emails as they brainstormed possible changes.

"I'm not hearing necessarily that it's broken the way that it is," said Commissioner Marie Marston on Tuesday.

"I think part of this is cleanup," Cole responded. "It's modification to meet reality."

After addressing questions set forth during the Tuesday meeting, the working group will have a chance to return to the commission with a new proposal.

As for Jencks, he had one last request:

"I figure I've got 10 years left," he said. "If you're going to change these hours, do it in 2024."

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