(Jan. 9, 2015) After four months of stewing over the issue of beach and Boardwalk smoking restrictions, the city has gotten … not all that far.
Following an extensive presentation from city staff at Monday night’s meeting, the Ocean City Council declined to vote just yet on a finalized smoking-restriction ordinance and plans instead to do more investigation themselves.
Council members said this will entail elected officials physically touring the Boardwalk to inspect the cigarette-butt receptacle locations proposed by city staff before making a final decision.
“Time is starting to become of the essence, because we have to get this message out,” Mayor Rick Meehan reminded the council. “Remember, once you make a final ordinance, there have to be two readings and public comment sessions before it’s enacted. There is some lead time needed.”
This past August, the council voted four-to-three to declare its intent to restrict beach and Boardwalk smoking, beginning May 2015. The majority consensus was that the city should set up designated smoking areas along the beach and at strategic locations on the Boardwalk, where smokers would have to stay within a certain distance of marked butt receptacles.
The three dissenting votes at the time, however, came from current council member Mary Knight and former members Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas, who believed that creating smoking areas on the already crowded Boardwalk would be logistically impossible. The better approach, they argued, would be to institute an outright ban on the boards.
Pillas and Ashley have since retired from office, but Knight and several of the new council members found their original stance further validated after viewing a map of where city staff had proposed to put the designated Boardwalk smoking zones.
“Only 17 percent of the population in the Northeastern United States, which is our visitorship, smokes,” Knight said. “But 40 percent of the blocks have smoking areas on the Boardwalk. We’re legislating to a minority.”
Coming off of a summer rife with complaints from store owners about pedestrian traffic clogs – largely due to the proliferation of street performers – there was apparent concern about creating new clogs of smokers on the boards.
“As a business owner, I’m now competing with street performers and designated smoking areas [for visibility by potential customers],” Knight said. “My thought is to have the designated areas on the beach only, eliminating some of the cost as well.”
According to City Manager David Recor, city staff estimated a cost of roughly $40,000 to complete the smoking restriction plan, as presented. This would involve 146 metal drums for the beach, spaced more densely downtown with smoking zones becoming sparser uptown. Additionally, 15 cast-concrete cigarette urns would be placed at Boardwalk smoking zones. Signs would also be replaced at all street-ends and access points.
Most of the concrete urns along the Boardwalk would be placed east of the main walkway, on the access ramps that lead from the seawall down to the beach, except at those entrances that have public showers.
Below Fourth Street, where the seawall ends, urns would be located on the concrete tram lane, or in some cases on the concrete plazas on the west side of the boards.
Like Knight, Councilman Wayne Hartman found that placing urns in areas that served as access points was counterproductive.
“I see those [placements] as possibly adding to the problem and not being part of the solution,” Hartman said. “What we’re doing is mandating that families drag their kids through the cloud of smoke as opposed to randomly passing someone on the Boardwalk with a cigarette … I see this as a detriment to what we’re trying to accomplish.
“If this layout is truly the best we can come up with, I would like to ask the council to consider a ban on the Boardwalk with no designated smoking areas, and just have designated areas on the beach.”
The fear of this scenario, however, was that smokers will simply congregate on the street ends, just off the Boardwalk.
“Nearly 100 percent of the people who access the Boardwalk are going to come down that street and walk through the smoke and trash,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “If you move it to the beach side, you mitigate that a lot.”
Dare suggested that, on the upper part of the Boardwalk, butt urns be placed only at seawall ramps that are mid-block, and not directly across from a street end that is used as a beach access route by most visitors.
“It doesn’t make it any more inconvenient for a smoker on the Boardwalk, and it would help people who are trying to access the beach,” Dare said.
Agreeing with Knight and Hartman, Councilman Matt James moved to restrict all smoking off the Atlantic Avenue right-of-way, which would constitute all city-controlled property on and adjacent to the Boardwalk.
“Right now, I would like to go with no smoking on the Boardwalk, and at a later time we can discuss how far back we want to go to the west, or to the east, and how far back it has to be on the street ends,” James said.
But this was essentially the same sticking point that the council had reached in August, when it asked staff to come back with a plan for the least-inconvenient smoking areas.
“Staff thought that’s effectively what we were already doing, even though there were some receptacles on the concrete areas adjacent to the Boardwalk [under the latest staff proposal],” Recor said.
It became apparent that the council was experiencing a “have your cake and eat it too” conundrum, as restricting smoking on the Boardwalk will, naturally, only concentrate it at the next closest point to the boards. Neither is ideal.
“The problem is that kids would have to walk through all the entrances west of the Boardwalk,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “But now moving it to the east [of the Boardwalk] causes the same issue.”
Although Hartman had seconded James’ motion for a Boardwalk ban, the issue never came to vote after the consensus became to do additional physical surveys.
“Let’s get in a little bus or something, drive around, and do this whole thing one time, and do it right,” DeLuca said.
A walk-around review of possible smoking zones will be scheduled as soon as possible.
“I do want to make sure [the new smoking regulations] happen as we said it was going to happen,” said Council President Lloyd Martin.