City seeks revamp of boat launch operations

By Helen Gao
Staff Writer

August 8, 2008

LA JOLLA – Hundreds of visitors come to La Jolla Shores on weekends for kayak tours, hoping to explore sea caves and spot sea lions, leopard sharks and bright orange garibaldi.

They use a sandy stretch at the end of Avenida de la Playa, the only public oceanfront boat launch in San Diego and a popular amenity that has become a victim of its own success.

Citing traffic and safety issues, city officials intend to revamp commercial operations there and restrict the number of tours and rentals on summer weekends. They want kayak companies to bid to use the facility.

Residents and some major kayak shops believe changes are overdue.

But critics say some operators, particularly smaller and newer ones, could be driven out of business. Prices also could go up for customers as companies pay more to the city in exchange for the right to use the launch.

By the end of this month or early September, the city plans to issue an invitation for bids from boat rental and tour companies.

Currently, up to 10 permits per month are issued on a first-come, first-served basis to companies that meet certain standards. The businesses pay $500 per month regardless of the number of kayaks they launch.

Under the new system, operators might have to pay the city a cut of their revenues when their receipts hit a certain threshold, rather than just a flat rate.

“The idea is, let's charge these businesses a fee that's commensurate with the impacts they are having, and let's use the money we get to deal with those impacts,” said City Council President Scott Peters, who represents La Jolla Shores.

San Diego lifeguard Capt. Rick Wurts laid out a tentative plan at a community meeting on Tuesday on how the boat launch would be managed in peak summer months. A lottery would divvy up time slots for weekend kayak tours among successful bidders.

Each vendor would also be allowed to have up to 12 rental boats out at a time that are not part of tours. Wurts said the plan for now is not to impose restrictions during summer weekdays or in off-seasons.

“We don't want to limit it any more than we have to,” Wurts said.

Opponents fear that the city will favor major La Jolla Shores operators or those closely allied with the La Jolla Shores Association, an organization of people who live and work in the area.

Association Chairman Jim Heaton said the organization's only interest is to ensure that the boat launch – which is also open to members of the public with their own kayaks – is well-maintained and used fairly.

Kayak businesses, regardless of how they view the competitive bidding, are worried that their livelihoods could be affected.

Marcella Di Michieli, who operates in the Shores, is worried about the city limiting the number of vendors. “The kayak industry is huge here. The competition is good for everybody,” she said.

Rodney Watkins of Scuba San Diego Inc. filed a class-action lawsuit against city officials last week to stop the permit fees and the bidding plan. He contends the city is using the boat launch – a public resource – to generate illegal profits.

The new system is not finalized but could be modeled after the process put in place for surf instruction camps in 2004.

Operators of surf camps pay the city either a minimum rent or a percentage of their gross revenue, depending on the size of their operations. The surf camps pay up to 10 percent of their gross.

Surf camps are highly regulated. Two have permits to use the Shores. Izzy Tihanyi, co-owner and founder of Surf Diva Surf School, is one of them.

Before competitive bidding for surf camps kicked in, Tihanyi said there were as many as 12 camps. She remembered a time when instructors would drive up with a load of boards and send students into the waves without adequate supervision.

“The city did a great job with choosing the best operators that had the most to give to the community,” she said.

Tihanyi, who has run her business since 1996, said prices have gone up since the city adopted competitive bidding for surf operators. She attributed that largely to the fees that businesses must pay the city.

Tihanyi is a board member of the Shores association, and like other businesses in the area, she would like to see more of the money collected from surf camps and kayak companies go toward coastline improvements.

The city received $78,500 from surf camp operators at the Shores last fiscal year, and $41,500 from kayak operators in the last calendar year. That money has gone into the city's general fund.

It's hard to quantify how much the city spends on the Shores. But as an example, San Diego employs four seasonal lifeguard ambassadors to monitor certain coastal areas, including the surf camps and kayak operations at La Jolla Shores. Their wages and equipment cost about $82,000 a year.