(Aug. 30, 2013) Despite safety concerns, City Council voted this week to move forward with a pilot program for the coming off-season that will allow surf fishing vehicles on the beach from 27th to 94th streets.
Implementation, however, pends on approval from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which could take several weeks and is likely to meet with some sticking points.
Councilman Joe Mitrecic had requested previously that city staff look into such a proposal. This week, City Engineer Terry McGean brought back a comprehensive recommendation that, while including a detailed outline of a surf fishing pilot program, did not find the favor of city staff due to safety concerns.
“While we feel this is feasible, the staff is recommending not to do this,” McGean said. “The biggest concern is the difference between our beach in Ocean City and what you would normally find on Assateague, Delaware or North Carolina where surf fishing is popular.”
“We have thousands of condo units on the ocean front,” McGean said. “Even in the off-season, we have pedestrians crossing the beach in an east-west direction or sitting on the beach. When you’re in the off-road vehicle portion of Assateague, for instance, that’s what’s there [exclusively]. You don’t have pedestrians entering every 300 feet and crossing the beach.”
However, council was considerably more gung-ho with the idea.
“You have to try new stuff,” Councilman Brent Ashley said. “Every bit of new business we can bring in for the off-season helps all of us.”
“Similar concerns were raised when I brought up horseback riding on the beach, but surprisingly the sky didn’t fall in and everything went well,” Ashley said.
Horses are currently allowed on the beach from Nov. 1 to March 30, in the area south of 27th Street. Vehicles will only be permitted north of that, under the new proposal, up to 94th Street, a stretch that has 13 vehicle access points. North of that, McGean noted, the density of high-rise condos restricts beach access.
Having one defined area for vehicles, at least to begin with, would help with enforcement.
“Our feeling was we would start very small and fairly restrictive, and if it worked it would be easy to expand,” McGean said. “It’s more difficult once you’ve established the program to add further restrictions to it.”
Under the plan, full-class vehicles – not ATVs, bikes, or trailers – would obtain a beach permit via the city’s Parks and Recreation Department that would allow beach access on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The council voted, however, to open this up to weekends as well.
But an additional restriction was added. Under the original staff plan, vehicles would be open to any type of use, not just surf fishing.
“That doesn’t mean what we’re encouraging is like Daytona Beach where you’re cruising up and down,” McGean said. But permit holders may just as well desire to park their vehicles for surfing, or just to lounge.
“We really didn’t see any difference between the impact of those types of activities and fishing,” McGean said. “How you determine who is actively surf fishing and what that means also creates another enforcement issue.”
However, the consensus of the council was that surf fishermen, at least to begin with, were more likely to be good stewards of the program.
“I think it should be for surf fishing only…if you’re going to have a pilot program and you’re not trying to turn it into Daytona and encourage dedicated fishermen,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.
Meehan proposed that vehicle permits only be issued if the owner can show a valid state fishing license.
“That makes it 90 percent sure that if they’re out there, they’re going to be fishing,” he said.
The cost of a fishing license would be on top of the proposed $75 town fee for a beach vehicle permit. Assateague and Delaware beaches allow surf fishing year-round for only a slightly higher fee, McGean noted, but this was by design.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t want to make it cheaper to get your pass in Ocean City than in Delaware. People who really want to do it will get the pass, and hopefully that would discourage people who would get a pass just to ride up and down the beach a few times,” he said.
Vehicles would also be required to carry equipment, like shovels and tow rope, to dislodge themselves if stuck in the sand. Stuck vehicles would have two hours to remove themselves or call in a tow. After that, the city would tow the vehicle to its impound lot at the owner’s expense, just as it does with illegally parked cars.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas was the only vote against moving the proposal forward, saying she was wary that surf fishing would be similar to the city’s opening up of skateboard restrictions last year. The town now allows skateboards on the boardwalk at the same time bicycles are allowed, but many skateboarders still ride during peak hours, Pillas said.
“Even though the regulation is there, we’re unable to enforce it with the skateboards. That’s something we tried to see how it goes and now it’s going south,” Pillas said. “The message gets so diluted down…people will only remember being here and seeing a vehicle on the beach.”
Although he voted for the pilot program, Councilman Dennis Dare said he had some reservations about allowing vehicles on the beach on weekends during hours that, in the middle of winter, may be after dark.
“If at some point that becomes a hazard, I would hope the council would take another look,” Dare said.
McGean also cautioned that the town would need to have an “extensive discussion” with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to implement the proposal. Under its beach replenishment agreement, the right-of-way to the city’s beaches falls as much under the jurisdiction of the DNR as it does the town.
The state has indicated, preliminarily, that it will have some concerns over the environmental impact of driving on Ocean City’s sand, which is much softer than other areas due to the artificial construction of the town’s dunes, McGean said.