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City nixes surf fishing proposal after negative public response

(Sept. 6, 2013) If all else fails, blame the press.

That cardinal rule of politics was on clear display Tuesday night, as the City Council made a complete turnaround on its proposal from last week to allow surf fishing vehicles on Ocean City’s beach during the offseason, claiming that the idea never had the body’s full support.

“The papers were out there saying that this was what we were going to do,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said. “I don’t think this was ever a done deal. We were going to have the DNR look at it and come back to it again.”

“As I understand it, it was just the possibility of looking at it, but it didn’t come across that way,” Council Secretary Mary Knight said. “In the future, we will have to be more careful in our wording.”

The council voted last week to request permission from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to move forward with establishing such a program. That application to the state will now be withdrawn, City Manager David Recor said.

Last week’s move provoked a strongly negative and highly visible reaction from the community. Several dozen citizens, all of whom seemed to object to the proposal, attended Tuesday night’s session, some with “stop surf fishing” signs.

An online petition against the proposal started by local surfer Matt Landon garnered 931 signatures before Tuesday’s reversal. The Ocean City chapter of the Surfriders’ Foundation also opposed the move.

Landon said in an email this week that he was glad to see the community come together and have the city listen.

“I didn’t get any comments about it that weren’t negative, to be honest,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.

“We can only envision walking over the dune crossing seeing multiple trucks in the place where you would normally surf, practice yoga, run, exercise, let your dog run free or just come to relax,” Landon wrote in the preface to his online petition.

“Local residents come out of hiding to enjoy the peacefulness of the Ocean City beaches from October to April. Imagine trying to run/walk but you have to run/walk in and out of the fishing rods and trucks, [or] going to surf and stepping on a hook or old fishing line all balled up in the sand.”

The pilot program for vehicles on the beach met with a six-to-one affirmation last week. Councilwoman Margaret Pillas was the only nay vote, although the recommendation of city staff was also against the proposal, due to concerns over pedestrian conflict and the rights of oceanfront properties.

“We have thousands of condo units on the ocean front,” City Engineer Terry McGean said last week. “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.”

Council President Lloyd Martin suggested forming a committee of stakeholders to have long-term discussions about a future proposal. But even this idea was dropped due to the strong public reaction.

“I don’t see any reason to give the indication that we’re even going to form a committee for it,” Meehan said. “I don’t know why we’d even still consider the option at this time.”

“I hope it comes across correctly in the media,” he added.

The proposal floated last week would have permitted vehicles from 27th Street to 94th Street from Nov. 1 to March 30. Horses are permitted during the same period south of this stretch, and city staff recommended avoiding any conflict between equine and vehicular uses. North of 94th Street, vehicle access points are limited due to the density of large condos.

Under the plan, full-class vehicles, not ATVs, bikes or trailers, would obtain a beach permit via the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which would allow beach access on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. 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.

However, it seemed to be the consensus on council that surf fishermen, at least to begin with, were more likely to establish themselves as good stewards of the program, and council voted to add in the restriction that a valid surf fishing license be required for a vehicle permit.

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.

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