Officials target surfer harassment at California’s Lunada Bay

LOS ANGELES — For generations, a small group of locals in wealthy Palos Verdes Estates has maintained a reputation for keeping other surfers off Lunada Bay’s well-shaped waves.

The so-called Bay Boys bombard outsiders with dirt clods, slash their car tires and assault them in the water — sometimes coordinating the attacks with walkie-talkies — witnesses have said.

Surfers who say they have been victimized over the years have accused local authorities of complacency, cowardice and even complicity.

Now an unlikely new sheriff of sorts has ridden into town: the California Coastal Commission.

In a letter to Palos Verdes Estates officials, Jordan Sanchez, one of the agency’s enforcement officers, wrote that the Bay Boys are so entrenched in this beautiful notch of California coastline that they are subject to the commission’s watchdog regulations and permitting processes.

The letter says: “Precluding full public use of the coastline at Palos Verdes Estates, including the waters of Lunada Bay, whether through physical devices . or impediments, such as threatening behavior intended to discourage public use of the coastline, represents a change of access to water, and, thus, constitutes development.”

Sanchez’s letter was followed by planning for a meeting with city leaders to discuss stepped-up plans for criminal and code enforcement needed to rid the coast of the Bay Boys’ obstruction of access.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen this level of cooperation on this issue,” said Andrew Willis, the commission’s top enforcement agent in Southern California.

Willis said the commission has funds available to improve signage for public access and to make improvements to the treacherous pathways from the bluff down to shore where surfers say they are frequently pummeled with dirt clods – but he said that the city will need to take the lead.

“We are not in the position to do a sting operation like the police or tear down structures like a building and safety department,” he said, a reference to a stone fort at the water’s edge allegedly constructed by the group as a party spot and outpost for coordinating harassment of outsiders.

The fort features stone and cement masonry, and on one recent day it was outfitted with cooking utensils, lighter fluid, trash cans, cushions and an ice chest, as well as a paved step way, seating areas and a fire pit. At the table, someone had etched “Respect this place.”

Palos Verdes Estates City Manager Tony Dahlerbruch said he agreed with the commission that the fort — whose construction is said to have begun three decades ago — will now need to undergo the permitting process or come down.

“In the meantime, that structure must be available to be used by all,” Dahlerbruch said.

“Lunada has some of the most powerful and perfect big wave spots in California,” said Jordan Wright, 31. “It’s the wave that is most like Hawaii in Southern California in terms of its strength, power and longevity.”

Wright, who has surfed in 13 countries and on waves with 40-foot faces, has had to retreat each time he tried to surf Lunada Bay, even when he went with his father, a detective for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“It’s run like an organized crime or racketeering outfit,” Wright said of the Bay Boys’ grip on the slice of public coast.

Cory Spencer, a 44-year El Segundo police officer and surfer, said he has watched the dynamic play out since he was 14.

“I’ve driven by and looked at the spot probably 10 to 15 times just to see it, but never really took my board out of the car and just traveled on because of the fear, intimidation and vandalism,” Spencer said.

In recent months, however, small groups of outsiders have decided to challenge the Bay Boys’ grip, and Spencer said he was inspired by Wright to finally give it a try. “I worked South Central for the LAPD, but it took time to gain the courage to go down there,” he said.

On his first outing in late January, Spencer said, “immediately, from the time we were on the rocks, we started getting the verbal heckling.”

Wright said some of the Bay Boys yelled, “You can’t surf here” and “Kooks.”

After they paddled out, Spencer said, he caught a wave and locked eyes with one of the Bay Boys who had heckled him on the shore.

“He was 75 yards away on the wave behind me. We had plenty of space, but he tried to spear me with his board . and he left a nice little slice in my hand,” Spencer said. “That was a nice introduction to my second wave at Lunada.”

Efforts to end the behavior have been largely ineffective. A former police chief installed a surveillance camera in 2002 to help keep an eye on the less-than-pacific bay. The City Council had it removed three months later.

This summer, a video shot surreptitiously by the Guardian showed local surfers intimidating journalists as they prepare to paddle out.

Jeff Kepley became Palos Verdes Estates’ chief of police a year ago, shortly before the Guardian newspaper caught on tape one of his employees as she dismissed visitors who came to complain after capturing footage of being harassed at Lunada Bay.

Kepley said he has sent patrols to the bluffs about 400 times and is determined to make an arrest during the current winter season when the waves and tensions are highest.

“It would not be hard,” said Spencer, the El Segundo officer, “if they really wanted to take care of this problem. But they need to get out in the water instead of just looking down from the bluff.”

For now, the Coastal Commission enforcement officers said, they are not preparing to fine anyone or take other punitive steps.

“If we work cooperatively,” Willis said, “we don’t need to think of enforcement mechanisms.”

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