Last Updated: 9:38 p.m.
Even amateur observers of the Flagler Beach City Commission might have known before the beginning of tonight’s meeting that the matter was settled before being discussed: the city commission, faced with throngs of surfers who make a specialty of challenging froth, was not going to move the no-surfing buffer around the Flagler Beach pier beyond 150 feet, where it’s been for years despite recurring attempts to enlarge it. It wasn’t going to be that daring. Not yet, anyway.
And none of the five commissioners favored the proposal to double the buffer to 300 feet. But there was a caveat.
“I don’t want to move it back to 300 feet, but,” Commission Chairman John Feind started, before he was interrupted by a room-full of cheers and applause. “Please, you didn’t hear the but yet,” he continued. “But I wouldn’t hesitate to do it if I don’t get the cooperation of the people here.” Feind wants more self-regulation. “It’s all too easy to move it to 300 feet and say you guys are out of luck, and it may come to that. I hope not, but it may come to that, and if you don’t cooperate it certainly may come to that,” Feind said.
For now, Dennis Bayer, an avid surfer whose law office is close enough to the surf that he was surfing today at lunch, will be part of an ad-hoc committee with Tom Gillin, the city’s parks and recreations director, and fishermen, to work on pragmatic means of ensuring that the tension between surfers and fishermen is reduced and means of self-policing enacted.
Last week the proposal to widen the buffer to 300 feet appeared on the commission’s agenda, the result of a summer and fall particularly rich in good surfing, good fishing and intensified friction between the two groups: surfers like to surf as close to the pier as possible, because that’s where the best waves crest. Fishermen pay to fish from the pier. They don’t like surfers tangling up their pastime. Complaints have produced some 40 police calls and eight written citations against surfers this year, and a discussion in the city administration about alternatives. The larger buffer was the only one that made it onto the agenda. Gilling summed up the proposal to the commission this evening, but not as a recommendation. Rather, he said, it’s one possibility among others that the commission and the public could hash out.
Surfers immediately mobilized last week, as they have on similar previous occasions going back at least two decades. The surfers were well organized, visually, numerically and rhetorically: Dozens spilled out of the commission chamber, which could only seat 88 people by fire regulation. Dan Sullivan, owner of Sully’s Surf & Skate Shop in Flagler Beach, had produced dozens of black and white t-shirts imprinted with an A.J. Neste photograph of the pier and surrounding surfers, and the words: “Don’t take our break/Florida Surfers Unite/ Save the Flagler Beach Pier Surf Zone.” Supporters bought the shorts for $11 apiece, creating sharp glitters of black and white spots in the crowd.
Fishermen must have either heard that they’d be vastly outnumbered tonight, or chose not to represent themselves: the nearly two dozen people who spoke on the matter to the commission were all, with only one exception, surfers, advocates or supporters, including John Tanner, the former state attorney, Colleen Conklin, the school board member, and Andrew Coleman, a physician and the director of Florida Hospital Flagler’s emergency department. Coleman said in his five years at the hospital he’s never known of an injury related to a surfer hitting the pier, though safety, from the commission’s perspective, was the main, purported concern for a broader buffer.
Haley Watson, her voice breaking a couple of times, recalled the day when she was struck in the head and injured by a fisherman’s sinker in what to her appeared to have been an intentional strike.
While several surfers described themselves as fishermen as well (including Watson), the only man who spoke as a representative of the fishermen was James Allen, a veteran who’s been in the county for 30 years, fishing at the pier for most of those years. He recalled how the pier has long been a gathering point for veterans, and how, a couple of weeks ago, one of those veterans was upset: he couldn’t fish, Allen said of the fisherman, because of the surfers. That’s what prompted Allen to complain, and to start discussions with Gillin. “I don’t think there’s any citizen in Flagler County that wants to take away from young people the ability to surf, and surf where they want to surf,” Allen said, but that compromises had to be made. Allen will be party of the ad-hoc committee.
Commissioner Steve Settle noted that whether the buffer is 150 feet or 300 feet wouldn’t make a difference: if it’s it’s been difficult to enforce the 150-foot buffer, it won;t be any easier to enforce the 300-foot buffer. Commissioner Marshal Shupe echoed the same thoughts (“You have to coexist with your neighbor across the street. That’s the same type of concept, at least that’s how I see it,” Shupe said). He suggested that whatever markers exist to mark the 150-foot buffer should be painted more brightly, as a start. Commissioner Jane Mealy, sounding equally unimpressed with the imposition of a broader buffer, referred to two emails she received, out of a very large number, that made concrete suggestions (one of the emails was from Bayer), such as clearer signs, better education and the creation of a committee.
The commissioners spoke at the beginning of the meeting, making clear they were not about to change the buffer and essentially deflating whatever tensions had built up until then. But there was one surprise: after Commissioner Kim Carney spoke wishfully of seeing the same passions displayed on behalf of protecting the beach from being eroded as she was seeing on behalf of fishing or surfing, she made her own preference clear: no buffer zone whatsoever. It was likely the most original idea presented on the matter all evening. Let the surfers and fishermen police themselves, she suggested, and let the city take advantage of being known as an ideal place for surfing, with the freedoms–and personal responsibilities–that come with surfing. Carney got a rousing round of applause.
The matter was ended after about 90 minutes.