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The Cool Crowd Meets The Beach Police

Here in Florida, we have a lot of coastline – more than any state other than Alaska, in fact.

In other words, we have lots of beaches. And, as a state, we’re into sharing them; our constitution designates that all beaches below the “mean high-water line” are public. No one owns the shoreline and, for the most part, Floridians are happy to make room for visitors and one another.

Some municipalities do provide lifeguards for public beaches, and these places have a right to set reasonable rules to protect public safety. Fort Lauderdale, for instance, regulates when it’s safe to swim, dive and fish on the city’s beaches. Yet there’s one rule you will seldom see for a Florida beach: rules banning large tents or canopies.

Many beaches in Florida, including one near my house, are not guarded at all. This means there are hundreds of miles of beaches in the Sunshine State where you can set up your shade of choice without anyone telling you to take it down. Take note when you plan your next beach vacation.

Elsewhere, the rules are not so friendly. Municipalities in Alabama, Delaware, New Jersey and other states have restricted the use of tents and canopies on their beaches. Sometimes the restriction purely relates to size: nothing larger than 8-by-8 or 10-by-10 feet, for instance. Other towns go further. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware followed the example of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in enacting an “umbrella only” policy (apart from baby tents with dimensions less than 3 feet).

There are a few theories behind the umbrella-only idea. Tents and canopies have three or four poles each, as opposed to an umbrella’s one, which can impede lifeguards’ view and block paths to the water. On the whole, though, safety does not seem to be the primary motivator behind such regulations; rather, it is the party atmosphere and the noise associated with large tents and canopies. Larger structures can make it seem as if beachgoers are claiming a larger portion of the beach than they otherwise would, according to some of the rules’ supporters. And tents with sides could theoretically facilitate smoking, drinking or other forbidden behavior.

A lifeguard’s job, as far as I understand it, is to monitor what happens in the water, not outside of it. So setting them up as the beach police, asking visitors to take down contraband tents, is hardly helping them do their primary job. But what about the rationales in favor of the tent bans?

First, if tents, canopies or umbrellas impede the lifeguard’s view of or quick access to the ocean, there ought to be a corridor established to keep a clear path between the lifeguard and the water. In fact, this is more or less what Hollywood, Florida did; city leaders mandated a “tent zone” behind the lifeguard stands, and limited the proximity of tents to prevent beachgoers from tying tents or canopies together to make larger structures. People who want tents can still enjoy them, and lifeguards have a clear view and an unimpeded path.

Outside of designated lifeguard corridors, though, why should anyone care what goes on inside a small shaded tent, whether smoking, drinking or anything else? If you can’t tell what is happening in someone’s tent, why is it a problem? And if you can detect the inappropriate behavior, call a cop – it’s the behavior, not the tent, that’s the issue.

As for the complaints about the party atmosphere and larger gatherings, a beach is not a library. Some people have compared the canopies and the activities they shelter to a tailgate party. What’s wrong with that? For the most part, tailgate parties are fun and sociable events.

Rather than outlaw tents, some towns might do well to set up swapping rules instead: a burger for a beer, a turn with the Frisbee for use of a Nerf football. If someone has set up a big canopy near your patch of the beach, go over and say hello. Part of enjoying a public space means sharing it with other members of the public. A little friendliness can go a long way.

Eventually, the controversy over beach tents will probably sort itself out. The people who want to go to intensely regulated beaches to sit on their regulation-size beach towels beneath their officially sanctioned umbrellas will do so. The fun-loving party crowd will go play elsewhere. In fact, some communities such as Isle of Palms, South Carolina are already benefiting, as vacationers leave regulated shores for more relaxed alternatives.

As for me, I am not the most extroverted person around. I don’t even drink beer. But all the same, I’ll choose to hang out with the cool kids when I can. Save some space for me in the tent.

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