Surf, swim zones tangled in vote

by Cole Dittmer
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen passed the first reading of a text amendment establishing a 200-foot restriction for swimming and surfing around Johnnie Mercer’s and Crystal piers by a vote of 3-2. Alderwomen Susan Collins and Elizabeth King were the two dissenting votes at the meeting on Thursday, April 11. With the 3-2 vote a second reading is required for the text amendment, which will take place at the board’s May 9 meeting. 

In his background documents, Wrightsville Beach town manager Tim Owens presented the board with four possible options for the ordinance: maintain the current ordinances for both piers; maintain Crystal Pier ordinances while lowering Mercer’s pier restrictions to 200 feet; prohibit surfing and swimming within 200 feet at both piers; or prohibit surfing within 200 feet and swimming within 100 feet around Crystal Pier.

Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue director Dave Baker noted that limits on surfing are only effective during beach patrols or after hours when there are no lifeguards in the stands. When stands are occupied from Memorial Day to Labor Day, surf zones are in effect that prohibit surfing from 300-450 feet on either side of a lifeguard stand, which includes those located on both sides of Mercer’s and Crystal piers. 

Baker recommended the town change the restrictions to 200 feet for swimming and surfing at Mercer’s and 100 feet for both at Crystal because of the size of his staff.

“We do need to have something that we feel we can enforce with the manpower we do have, and only one law [for both swimmers and surfers],” Baker said. 

Enforcement becomes an issue when the restricted areas become too big. If a guard is in the stand and spots someone inside the restricted area, one of the roving patrols to enforce the ordinance is called. The stands beside Mercer’s have an extra guard to address those violations. 

Although the need for the amendment was brought before the board because Crystal Pier will soon become a fishing pier again, most of the controversy surrounded Mercer’s. With an even turnout of surfers and fishermen, the public hearing for the text amendment was lengthy.

Advocating for the expansion of the restricted areas, Wayne Holden said the proximity of human activity to Mercer’s pier is hurting the pier’s reputation and business. 

“This is a commercial fishing pier, sanctioned by the state with all of its regulations, permits and requirements,” Holden said. “In order for this to be a successful business, fishermen need to feel like they have a fair chance of catching desirable fish.” 

Tony Butler, former managing partner at Sweetwater Surf Shop and owner of, said he knows there are only a handful of surfers who consistently disregard the restrictions. 

“I get really upset because I was on the surf zone committee when we tried to make surfing and the beach more accessible for everyone,” Butler said. “I understand the dilemma between surfers and fishermen, and I certainly respect them and their beliefs but I do feel that you have to put faith in those you employ … I think you have to trust your staff to do what is best for the community.” 

When it came to the vote, Wrightsville Beach Mayor David Cignotti, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Sisson and alderman Darryl Mills agreed with Baker’s recommendations. As a compromise to King and Collins, Cignotti altered Baker’s recommendation by increasing the surfing and swimming restrictions to 200 feet at Crystal Pier with the requirement for the board to review the new changes at the beginning of 2014. 

As for the enforcement of the town’s smoking ban, the board agreed with town attorney John Wessell’s assessment that the ban can only be enforced on the beach strand from the south end jetty to the southern property line of Shell Island Resort, and from the first line of vegetation east to the high tide line. Wessell said the ban is not enforceable below the high tide line because of the language included in the ordinance passed with the referendum in November and that the town charter prohibits the amendment of any ordinances for two years. 

The board also decided Wrightsville Beach Police Department officers would write citations for ban violations after a span of time spent educating the public. 

Those education efforts will now include a sign to be designed by Wrightsville Beach School students and placed around the beach strand, which the board agreed to on Thursday.


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