UPDATE, MAY 12, 5:03 P.M.: It's been a mentally draining–and sometimes sleepless–past six months for T.K. Brimer, owner of the Frog House in Newport Beach. Up until Tuesday night, when a city council vote all but guaranteed the shop's survival.
“A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders that has been there for months and months,” Brimer said. “There were nights I'd wake up [to use the restroom] and then I wouldn't be able to get back to sleep because it'd be on my mind. Almost every waking moment, it was there on my mind. Now I can put all that time toward my business.”
There is still a hearing with the Coastal Commission to negotiate before this matter is entirely put to rest, but Brimer doesn't seem too concerned. The city council was the primary hurdle.
Brimer likened the fight and end result to the holiday classic movie, It's a Wonderful Life. “I didn't realize until all of this that we had so much love and support,” he said. “I can't underestimate the importance of the public outcry [in helping save the surf shop].”
Among the West Newport surf shop's many notable unique characteristics is its witty sign, which regularly keeps commuters and neighbors entertained. The current signage (right) is a knock against the action sports brand, Volcom's decision to sell to a French company.
Brimer plans to change it to something a bit more fitting and celebratory very soon.
UPDATE, MAY 11, 7:29 A.M.: The Frog House's fight for survival is over. More than 100 supporters of the West Newport surf shop were in attendance at last night's city council meeting. Following the unanimous decision to approve the necessary zoning changes, a cheer rung out.
Might be a good day to go in and try to get a deal on a new surfboard or wetsuit.
ORIGINAL POST, APRIL 8, 5:15 P.M.: The Frog House and its bespectacled owner, T.K. Brimer, survived to fight another day. In the shops' first of three steps to remain in business at its current location–where the shop first sprung up in 1962–the Newport Beach Planning Commission unanimously approved the application to be re-zoned on Thursday evening.
The following afternoon, the Weekly spoke with Brimer, who was still reveling. “I got some surfing in and now we're basking in our small victory,” he said. “The planning commissioners showed some real concern and love and care for us.”
Much work is still to be done. It was expected that the planning commission would side with the Frog House. The next two steps, meeting with the city council and the Coastal Commission, are expected to be more difficult.
This isn't Brimer's first dance with the city council. The zoning issue first came up in 1974, when he was still a shop employee, just a few years removed from high school. Without any word to anyone, the city had re-zoned the area as residential. When Brimer and then-owner, Frank Jensen, went to find out how it had happened, the council explained that the Frog House would be allowed to remain in business as a non-conforming party, which the new law allowed. As long as no drastic changes were made to the one-story building, the council assured that there would be no problems.
Even when Brimer took over the business in 1977 and its reputation improved, there were no plans to mess with the shop. A small shop presented “small overhead, small headaches,” he explained. The 30-plus years that followed were a blur of “bro deals,” bizarre employees, plenty of surfing, and mostly smooth sailing. Until the summer of last year.
On July 12, 2010, the city council passed an ordinance which outlawed non-conforming usage. Brimer was handed a 30-day notice to close up shop or apply for an extension of abatement. He would learn that the Frog House's involvement was an “unintended consequence.” The new ordinance was a tool intended to target the drug and alcohol rehab facilities which had been functioning out of residential properties for years. No exceptions could be made for the surf shop, since that would show favoritism. The fight for survival was on.
The paperwork began and the legal bills added up. But the community came out in support. A Facebook page, “City of Newport, let the Froghouse Stay” has more than 12,600 followers.
After the unanimous decision with the planning commission, Brimer was given further indication of just how much support there was. “One of [the planning commissioners] told me he had over 700 emails [in support of the Frog House], and that was three days ago,” he said. “Another one of them said his daughter emailed from France and told him if he didnt get the Frog House zoning taken care of, she wasn't coming home.”
The planning commission approval rezones the surf shop as a mixed-use vertical, which, ultimately, could make the property more valuable. If he wanted, Brimer could now remodel the shop to a two-story structure, with his business on the bottom floor and a residential space on the top floor.
The city council presents a more formidable opponent. Beyond the non-conforming status, the city also raised another issue which puzzles Brimer, neighborhood residents and the planning commission. In its report, the council wrote: “Although the Frog House has a strong following that supports its continued economic success, aesthetically, the property detracts from the overall district.”
Where Frog House resides in West Newport, small businesses, including the Big Belly Deli, an army surplus store and Cappy's Cafe, line Pacific Coast Highway. It's been that way for years. Apparently, now it's an issue.
The knock on the aesthetics of the shop puzzled Brimer. Apparently the council is trying recreate Newport Coast.
To some, the Frog House is just another surf shop. Others say its the last of its kind, a “core” shop run by surfers for surfers. For Brimer, who's 63 and married, it's obviously more.
“It's my life,” he said. “Not that I'd quit breathing [if it was shut down], but how many guys are left like me, guys who get up with a big smile, get to surf five days a week and hang with young people. It's just a great deal for me; it keeps my mind young and keeps me feeling young.”
The preparation for the next battles will come in due time. The meeting with the city council hasn't yet been scheduled. First, Brimer is taking off to Costa Rica for a week. He plans to surf and eat and be merry, and save the stress and worrying and the paperwork for when he gets back.