On a windy October afternoon, a half-dozen kiteboarders skimmed the waves off Miami Beach, pulled along the water by brightly colored kites.
The sport has grown increasingly popular on the island in recent years, but hasn’t been subject to many rules. That has led to tensions between kiteboarders and residents who live near a popular launch spot on the 25th Street waterfront. After a kite hit a sunbather on the head last year, residents in nearby condo buildings complained that the sport endangered beachgoers.
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In March, the City Commission discussed banning kiteboarding from all but three locations on the beach, but backed off the proposal amid outcry from kiteboarders. City officials opted to come up with new regulations instead.
The new rules, which commissioners will discuss on Wednesday, would prohibit kiteboarders from launching south of 29th Street, except for a small section of beach at 25th Street, and require experienced kiteboarders to apply for a permit. In order to qualify, kiteboarders would need a Level 3 certification from the International Kiteboarding Organization, an intermediate level that requires an average of eight hours of lessons, or an equivalent certification. Beginners would have to take lessons at one section of the beach off 76th Street.
Kiteboarders would also have to stay at least 50 feet away from swimmers and at least 200 to 300 feet from shore, depending on the time of day. The rules wouldn’t apply to surfers and skimboarders.
“What we want to do is to continue to let this very much growing activity flourish,” said Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who sponsored the legislation. Samuelian said the new rules were developed with input from local kiteboarders to “make sure this wonderful activity happens in a way that is not disruptive.” The proposed rules passed unanimously during an initial vote in September.
Gloria Bello, 76, a resident of the Club Atlantis condo building near the 25th Street launch spot, said she’s glad the city is going to regulate the sport.
“My husband and I are in our late 70s and when we go down to the beach they have all those strings all over the place and you’re afraid to trip on one of those things,” she said. Earlier this month, Bello added, she was sitting by the beach when she saw a kite fall on the sand just inches from where a woman was walking. “She got the scare of her life,” Bello said.
The Miami Beach Kiteboarding Association is also on board with most of the new rules. The association has been pushing for regulations for several years, said president Roman Wunderlich, in order to ensure that the sport is practiced safely.
But Wunderlich worries that requiring kiteboarders to stay 300 feet from shore could make the sport more dangerous. Under the proposed rules, kiteboarders would have to stay 300 feet from shore when lifeguards are on duty, because that’s when most swimmers are in the water, and 200 feet from shore when they’re not. (Lifeguards are on duty in Miami Beach from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer months and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter.)
“I think that’s a little far out considering everybody’s safety,” Wunderlich said. “You’re 300 feet from shore and something happens to you there … you’re outside of the swim zone.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, kiteboarder John Rosarky was taking a break from the waves under a tent near 25th Street. Rosarky said he didn’t object to applying for a permit, which he thought would keep inexperienced kiteboarders out of the water, but he didn’t like the idea of having to stay 300 feet from shore. Waves break closer to the beach, he said, and that’s where kiteboarders find the best action.
“I like to be on the wavebreak,” he said. “To take that away from us isn’t really fair.”
That’s a concern shared by James Speirs, a kiteboarder and commercial airline pilot who has been practicing the sport for five years. “It’s not like a football field where you have demarcations,” he said. “We’re talking about the ocean.”
Speirs agrees that the rules are a good idea overall, but said he thinks enforcing them and making sure tourists are aware of the restrictions could prove a challenge.
“The city really has an obligation for the safety of swimmers and beachgoers and kitesurfers alike to enforce and visibly publish these rules on the beach itself,” he said.
If the new rules pass, Miami Beach would begin requiring kiteboarding permits in April 2019. In order to apply, kiteboarders would have to show that they have Level 3 certification from the International Kiteboarding Organization or an equivalent certification. They would be required to display city-issued identification, which the ordinance describes as a streamer, from their equipment.
The city’s code compliance department would enforce most of the new rules, according to the ordinance, except for the restrictions on who can provide kiteboarding lessons. Under the new rules, providing kiteboarding lessons without permission from the city would be a criminal offense punishable by a fine and up to 30 days in jail. Violators of the other restrictions would face fines starting at $500 for a first offense and up to $5,000 for multiple violations within a six-month period.