The city is covering its bets (and something else as well) by cracking down on surfing, fishing and beach use after "closing hours."
And, everybody in Rockaway who wants to use the beach pays for the city’s reluctance to follow the rules.
The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has published a small, green book called "Rules and Regulations."
There are really three of those rules and regulations that are germane to the present discussion.
Under "Regulated Uses," section g-3, we find "Surfboards are allowed only at areas expressly designated for such use."
Under the same heading, section h says, "No person shall engage in fishing except at such places and times and under such conditions as designated by the commissioner."
Under "General Provisions" section a, "Persons may enter and use the parks from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. unless other open hours are posted at any park."
The city’s own rules are clear. They can allow surfing in areas designated for their use.
They can allow fishing at places and times designated by the commissioner.
They can allow people to walk on the beach and the boardwalk from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m.
Why then, do residents get tickets for surfing? Why do they get tickets for fishing? Why are they asked to get off the beach after 10 p.m.?
There is one answer to all of those questions, and that answer can be given in one word, "liability."
"The city won’t allow surfing and fishing because of the liability problem," says City Councilman Joseph Addabbo, the chair for the council’s Park’s Committee and one of Rockaway’s representatives on the council.
"The city is looking to the state for assurances that its liability in case of accident would be limited."
Last year at this time, Addabbo said that "It’s really the State Health Regulations that dictate all of the rules that Rockaway’s surfers and fishermen have been having problems with."
That, however, is not true.
The state’s Sanitary Code, Section 6-2.16 says, "No boating, water skiing, or surfboarding shall be permitted in the swimming and bathing area. Separate areas for the above activities may be designated by floating lines and buoys."
When Addabbo turned to Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer for help in getting the state to allow surfing and fishing, she responded by writing in a letter dated August 15, 2002, "At many New York State parks, surfing and fishing are allowed from sunrise to sunset. These activities are allowed only at designated beaches and locations. Additionally, surfers and fishers are allowed to conduct those activities without lifeguard supervision."
After meeting with city representatives this January, Ronald Tamponato, the director of the state’s Center for Environmental Health, sent a letter to Pheffer, clarifying the state’s position.
"We explained (to the city representatives) that we are considering a change to subpart 6-2 of the State Sanitary Code to clarify that the bathing definition does not include surfing or surfcasting and that our intent is not to prohibit those activities," he wrote.
"Our intent is not to prohibit those activities (surfing and fishing)."
If that is not clear enough to the city representatives, then they should go back to school.
The state wants the city to designate surfing and fishing areas and to mark them clearly. By doing that, the city fulfills the state requirements and cannot be held liable, even when a lifeguard is not present.
The city, however, refuses to do that.
The city’s parks department officials want the code to "incorporate a clear message that bathing is prohibited when no supervision exists and that the owner (the city) is not liable for injuries related to non-compliance with the provision."
They want to cover their you-know-what.
A proposal such as that would require that it go through the state’s rulemaking process, something that could take more than a year.
"There is no way that such a rule could be in place for this summer," Tranontano says.
"Putting that rule in writing would take on legislative cycle, about a year," Addabbo agrees. "The city wants that to be done because the Corporation Counsel is really worried about the liability question."
Even Tranontano seems to say that the city is seeking to cover itself.
"The city’s current position is based on a risk management evaluation by its Corporation Counsel," he says. "The Corporation Counsel determined that drowning and other injuries that occur after hours at the city’s bathing beaches have resulted in numerous lawsuits and multi-million decisions against the city. The Corporation Counsel has advised city staff to broadly interpret the meaning of ‘bather’ and to strictly enforce the State Sanitary Code."
That word has filtered down to Captain Charles Talamo, the CO of the 100 Precinct more than any other precinct commander in the city.
His police officers have provided for a wave of tickets last year, and all indications are that he plans to do the same this year.
I have to wonder what powers Joe Addabbo has as the chair of the Parks Committee. Does he have the power to tell Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to designated surfing beaches before the summer comes and goes? Or, is he a figurehead who has to negotiate with Benepe and bow to his power as the city’s Parks Commissioner?
Both the city’s own regulations and the state’s rules allow for the designation of such areas and for them to be used when lifeguards are not present.
The city is flouting its own regulations and disregarding the state’s.
That has got to stop.
C’mon, Joe, get a backbone. Tell Benepe to designate surfing beaches and fishing beaches. Pass a law. Get it done.
And, while you’re at it, get the city to follow its own rules. Open the beach, not for swimming of course, but for walking and sitting on both the beach and the boardwalk from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m.
There were many horror stories last summer, stories told by local residents who were taking a walk on the beach at 10 p.m. on a hot August night and were ordered off the beach by police officers and threatened with tickets if they did not move.
There was even a story of a 17-year-old Rockaway girl who was on the beach after "curfew" and refused to identify herself to police officers. She was reportedly handcuffed to a light pole for several hours before she was released.
Rockaway residents deserve to be able to use the beach, and not even the Corporation Counsel, who may never have been in Rockaway, should be able to ruin another summer in Rockaway.