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City pilot program offers larger surfing beaches, more inlet time

(April 19, 2013) In an attempt to address the highly variable nature of both the demand for surfing and the supply of decent waves, the city will be piloting a system this summer that will allow for considerably more flexibility in the size and scope of its surf beaches.

“The people I’ve talked to would rather have more space than a third separate beach,” said K-Coast owner Chris Shanahan, a member of the city’s surf beach subcommittee.

Although the idea had been floated of adding a third, rotating surfing beach on weekends during the summer, the option was found to be untenable this week after Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin presented an outline of how such a rotation would look.

“The beaches that are included in the rotation [for a third beach] will be hit more often than the ones at the extreme south and north end. That’s just how it works out,” Arbin said.

Although designating specific sections of beach for surfing only may be in the best interest of safety, it comes at a price to the city’s condominium and hotel owners, who typically dread days when the beach in front of their facilities is reserved for surfers and off limits to bathers, who likely make up most of their clientele.

“Some of these places are seeing a 50 percent increase in the number of days they’ll be closed,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “It’s not fair to them. And you’re hitting some of the highest density areas in town.”

Instead, the city will be stipulating this year that the OCBP has the ability to double the size – from one block to two – of both rotating surf beaches, depending on how much demand it anticipates given the quality of the surfing conditions.

The Beach Patrol will also have the discretion to keep the inlet surf beach – normally closed on summer weekends – open through the first half of June and again in the latter half of August, conditional on the number of swimmers.

“I think the most we can ask for is to keep [the inlet] open until you guys see crowds you can’t handle,” said Shelly Dawson of the Ocean City Surfriders’ Foundation. “Especially in June, it’s chilly water and the crowds aren’t there. But it’s not fair to impact some of these places three and four times [per season.]”

Current city regulations mandate that proper surfboards – those with fins or those more than 54 inches long – are prohibited on city beaches from the hours of 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and specifically along Boardwalk-adjacent beaches from May 1 to Sept. 30.

During those times, the city has a rotating surfing beach schedule that limits summer daytime surfboard use to two select blocks of beach, which change daily, as well as the southern half of the inlet beach on weekdays only.

However, surfers say this is not enough, given the sport’s recent resurgence in popularity. But with the city’s last undeveloped oceanfront block being built up circa 1980, according to Arbin, the resort’s beach is now completely lined with hotels and condominiums whose owners expect the beach in front to be available for tourists.

Cycles of demand from bathers and surfers, though, do tend to run in opposite phases.

“The reason you get really hot weather, when the beaches are packed, is when you have no wind,” Arbin said. “When it’s that hot, it becomes ‘Lake Ocean City’ and no one is going to surf anyway.”

However, despite maintaining what it considers to be an excellent relationship with the surfing community, the OCBP has long been reluctant to use its own best judgment in allowing surfing outside of a rigid schedule, for fear of causing conflict with bathers.

“I really want to avoid a situation where a family is set up and then we have them move to expand the surf beach,” said OCBP Lt. Ward Kovacs. “That’s when people become hostile.”

The Beach Patrol has relaxed these concerns in recent meetings with the committee, however, on the stipulation that the decision to expand the beaches will be made before they open, and could then be retracted if few surfers are seen to be coming – not vice-versa.

“I don’t think that the regular beachgoers are going to complain if we give them more space later on,” Arbin said.


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