On any windy day, the stretch of South Beach behind the EF International School will be sprinkled with sunbathers, English students, and a squadron of beachgoers strapped into massive, colorful kites.
That 25th Street waterfront is a hotspot for Miami’s kiteboarding community, a cohort of locals united by a near-aggressive devotion to catching waves and flying kites –– ideally both at once.
But recently, the beach has become the site of a bitter conflict –– a very Miami kind of turf war –– between boarders, neighbors, and city officials over who has a right to the beach.
The battle has stretched on for months, ballooning into a feud with no shortage of bad blood. Several people who used to kiteboard there say they have already moved out of the area, while others have put their homes on the market or let their leases lapse. The issue is up for a vote on Wednesday by the Miami Beach City Commission.
Here’s how it started.
Back in October of 2017, a renegade kite bopped a sunbather on the head. The impact was minor. The police report was never completed. But the victim wrote an angry but unsigned email to the mayor, demanding action.
The incident wasn’t an isolated event –– it brought to a head the growing tension between kiters and locals who believe the sport to be dangerous. Although boarders and beachgoers co-existed peacefully for years, recent changes have left relations raw.
Those changes stem from a sudden surge in kiting. Kiteboarding is a relatively young sport, first emerging from Europe in the early 1980s. In the past two decades, kiting has grown at an “exponential rate,” according to Francisco Escudero, an 18-year kitesurfer and the founder of the surf school Skybanditz Kiteboarding. The growth has been great for Escudero’s business, but not for some local residents.
“I always liked watching them. But now there are so many of them and they are riding dangerously,” said Phyllis Sperling, a Club Atlantis resident, at a recent city meeting on the issue. The long kite strings, Sperling said, could easily catch in the wind and slice someone’s head off.
Kiteboarders say that decapitation by kite has never happened. In fact, injury by kite is rare. The angry letter was the first record of a kite injury on Miami Beach in the last decade, said Vincent Canosa, the city’s Ocean Rescue chief.
Still, the sport does require a lot of real estate. The kites themselves can range from seven to 19 yards, and the lines usually measure between 22 and 30 yards. On a crowded beach day, the towering kites can seem, if not dangerous, then at least threatening.
The angry letter writer had asked that a lifeguard tower be constructed. One of the city’s few restrictions on kiteboarding prohibits the activity within 300 feet of a tower to keep the water clear for swimmers. Shortly after the city received the letter, the tower was built at 26th Street. Kiting was effectively banned from the block.
Many boarders –– some of whom said they had moved to 25th Street specifically for the sport –– called this installation unfair, saying the city had not told them about the tower or made any effort to find a compromise.
“The stand at 26th Street showed up overnight,” said Bruno Perez, a Miami Beach business owner who says he has been kiteboarding for 16 years. “We were shocked. We had no notice.”
“This was a very autocratic action, like the KGB, the Russians, the communists,” said Laszlo Karai, a Miami dermatologist and longtime kiter. “One of the reasons I came here from Hungary was to escape this kind of culture.”
The next week, kiters –– a predominantly male group, with even tans and a substantial collection of water-related graphic T-shirts –– came out in droves to speak to the city committee on waterfront protection. Even months later, kiters are still enraged by memories of the meeting.
“The first meeting was Nov. 7, which was the anniversary of the great Soviet Revolution,” Karai said. “The October Revolution was one hundred years before our meeting with Miami Beach Ocean Rescue.”
The kiteboarders are very vocal and very affluent — the cost of basic kiteboarding equipment starts around $1,000. Add in lessons, and that number quickly climbs to $5,000. Group members say most of them are doctors, airplane pilots, lawyers, and businessmen. (“I paid $10,000 in property taxes last year,” kiter James Speirs said at a recent meeting). After the lifeguard tower was installed, the kiters created an animated video stating their case and hired a former congressman, Joe Garcia, to promote their cause.
Public notice was not required for the lifeguard tower installation, Canosa said. He said the area had been flagged a year earlier for lacking a tower, and the letter had only expedited the process.
But after significant pushback from the kiteboarding community, Miami Beach officials agreed to hold public discussions to determine regulations that would satisfy both the sport’s enthusiasts and its detractors. Concerned residents argued that kiting should be limited to certain segments of the beach.
“I like what these people are doing, but not in front of my building,” Maria Fernandez, a Triton Tower resident, said at a workshop Feb. 9. “We have more than 1,000 people living here. We have a lot of children. We have a lot of elderly. Everything is dangerous by itself. But now, it’s more dangerous.”
The residents in favor of the 25th Street ban say many of the boarders flouted the rules, taking out their kites after lifeguards left the beach. They also said some kite enthusiasts have reacted to regulations with overt hostility. Several people wished to remain unnamed to avoid retaliation.
Boarders countered that the real problem lies not with the sport itself but with instructors who give illegal lessons on public property.
“In order to be a kiteboarding instructor, you have to be certified, and you need a license from the city,” said Roman Wunderlich, a three-year kiter and president of the Miami Beach Kiteboarding Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to promote kite safety, community, and accessibility.
“When you’re learning to kiteboard, you have to learn on the beach, and the kite crashes from time to time,” Wunderlich said. Most of the neighbors’ concerns would disappear, Wunderlich said, if the city cracked down on uncertified instructors. “The city wants to punish the whole sport for the crimes of a small minority of kiters.”
The Oceanfront Plaza Condominium Association, one of the groups advocating to prohibit kiteboarding in the area, circulated a petition on the issue.
“It feels unsafe to be there at the beach all the while they dangerously zoom in and out between swimmers,” the petition read. “In other words: enough is enough!” The petition garnered 51 responses, of which 42 agreed with the petition, while 9 disagreed.
The kiteboarding group responded with its own petition on Change.org. At last count, 2,005 people had signed the petition against the ban on kiteboarding. Among its signatories is celebrity billionaire and kiteboarder Richard Branson, who tweeted out the petition on March 1.
Both sides agree that the sport is in need of some rules. In fact, members of the kiteboarding foundation say they have been pushing for regulations since 2012.
On its website, the foundation proposes that all certified kiters follow three rules while practicing on public beaches:
▪ Never fly your kite over the beach, except to launch or land.
▪ Stay 200 feet from the shore at all times when riding.
▪ Stay 50 feet from people.
Following these rules, they say, would ensure everyone’s safety.
But the foundation has had trouble enforcing its guidelines. Its members trained ambassadors who would patrol the beach and warn offending kiters. They conducted workshops with Miami Beach lifeguards in recognizing rule violations. These efforts had little impact. Without the city’s endorsement, the kiteboarding group had no real authority –– no way to give its rules weight.
Now, Miami Beach is on board with these rules, but city staff wants to take it further. The staff is proposing that the city ban kiteboarding from all but three locations on the beach — 35th Street, 84th Street and Ocean Terrace.
These three spots are at the heart of the conflict.
“The big difference that we have is that they want the rest of the beach to be open to kiteboarding as well,” Kathie Brooks, Miami Beach assistant city manager, said at the Feb. 9 meeting.
The proposed new rules are “draconian,” said Perez. The 85th Street location would not be open on weekends –– the most popular kiting time. The Ocean Terrace location would be the designated beach for beginners. That leaves 35th Street as the only plausible spot for most kiters on weekends.
Kiteboarders want additional locations open at 55th Street, 65th Street, and above all, 25th Street –– the most popular spot and the location of the boarders’ informal headquarters, a kite-themed bar called The Reef.
But Sarah De Los Reyes, Triton Tower president, says the 25th Street spot –– an extremely eroded segment of beach –– simply does not have enough space for kites and people to share.
Ocean Rescue has revisited the possibility of adding two more designated kite areas, Canosa said. The 65th Street area is under consideration, as is the much-coveted 25th street spot, but only on a 6-month trial basis.
Wednesday’s vote will determine the beach territory that kiteboarders legally use.
“I want to remind everyone that compromise means everyone has to give up something,” Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said at the Feb. 9 meeting. “We’re all going to walk away with something fair, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to be 100 percent happy with the answer.”