There are few sites more quintessential to the California experience than these: a palm tree, the Santa Monica Pier, a surfboard in the sand.
The promise of a day or two living the Southern California lifestyle brings millions of tourists to Santa Monica every year, and to many of them a chance to catch their first wave is high up on the bucket list. In order to provide a safe, reliable experience, the City permits and manages surf camps, schools and individual instructors who teach novices on the beach. However, according to a half dozen interviews conducted by the Daily Press, the system is not always working as well as it should.
“There’s absolutely no enforcement out there on weekends,” Patrick Murphy said looking over the waves crashing on the shore just south of the Pier. Murphy was one of the first instructors to get a permit when the City submitted its first request for proposal fifteen years ago. He’s gone through a thorough vetting process year after year and has paid a hefty fee for the right to teach here: 15 percent of gross receipts.
So he is upset when he sees individual instructors – and even surfing schools – operating on the beach without a permit.
“It’s really messed up,” Murphy said. “It does become more difficult to operate every year. There’s a lot more competition and these people aren’t paying their permit fees so there’s much less overhead. I doubt they’re paying workers comp … maybe they have insurance.”
This year the City issued permits to three surf camps, one school (Murphy’s Learn to Surf LA) and nine individual instructors. It also lowered the fee to ten percent of gross receipts from fifteen. Santa Monica’s Public Information Officer, Constance Farrell, says the permits help the City maintain a diversity of activities out on the beach, as well as insure safety for locals and visitors.
“That’s something we take really seriously because we want to make sure people are coming out and enjoying the beautiful beach and the Pacific and learning to surf but they need to have a safe experience which is the most important thing,” Farrell said.
Since January 2015, the City has issued just three citations to surf instructors operating without a permit and two citations to permitted instructors who didn’t have a business license. But multiple surf instructors told the Daily Press they see violators out in the water every day.
“There are people who just bluntly sit there and teach lessons and the City doesn’t do anything about it,” permitted instructor Sergio Penaloza said, acknowledging that it is difficult for code enforcement officers to keep track of surfers who spend the majority of their time out in the ocean. Penaloza says he’s been pleased with the permitting system overall, because it prevents crowding among the waves.
“There isn’t much you can do about it unless you can police all the time,” Penaloza said. “I was out there today at six in the morning and there’s no one policing at that hour. There’s no one up at that hour.”
Farrell says the permitting process is a collaboration between the Beach Team which works out of the Annenberg Community Beach House and Code Enforcement. The City publishes a list on its website of permitted instructors. She says the City is aware of the issue and plans to keep an eye on the shore this summer.
“As we head into the summer, we know there will be an increase in surf activities and to keep people safe, enforcement details are planned,” Farrell said. “We encourage people to let us know if they have a tip regarding unpermitted surf camps or instructors by calling or emailing.”
Murphy is hoping the City follows through on its promise. As a surf school, he says the lack of enforcement has made it difficult for him to retain good instructors because some realize they can make more money by going it alone on the beach and simply not pay City permit fees.
“It’s the environment that’s being created by a lack of enforcement,” Murphy said. “You’ve got pretty much anybody coming out here. The regulators are not bad people, it just doesn’t seem like a high priority for them to really pay attention to it.”
If you see an illegal surf school or unpermitted instructor you can contact Code Enforcement by calling (310) 458-4984 or emailing. Code.firstname.lastname@example.org.