By Donald Wittkowski
Largely avoiding the controversy and objections of the past, Ocean City’s third attempt to regulate the Boardwalk performers who entertain the summer crowds sailed through on its first vote Thursday night by City Council.
In another key vote, Council approved spending $650,000 to buy an abandoned former Getty gas station that has been a longtime eyesore marring the appearance of the main gateway into town.
Under the plan, the old Getty property will be demolished and transformed into green space to make the Ninth Street corridor more inviting to visitors. The Getty site will be combined with land next door, formerly occupied by a shuttered BP gas station, to create a landscaped park.
The city bought the old BP site last year for $475,000 and had the property cleaned up. The proposed purchase of the adjacent Getty land will allow the city to remove two blighted properties as it moves ahead with its strategy to spruce up the Ninth Street entryway.
“I think it’s a step in the beautification of our gateway and creating open space,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said.
The city hopes to finalize the purchase of the Getty property by this spring and have the new park ready by the summer season. A funding ordinance to buy the site for $650,000 was introduced by a 6-0 Council vote. A public hearing and final vote on the Getty purchase is scheduled for the March 23 Council meeting.
Meanwhile, Council gave its initial approval to the latest version of an ordinance that would regulate the singers, musicians and other entertainers who perform on the Boardwalk between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told Council that the goal of the entertainers ordinance is to strike a balance between the rights of the performers and the Boardwalk merchants.
She said the regulations would allow the city to “maintain the family-friendly and safe atmosphere” of the Boardwalk.
Mayor Jay Gillian, who has lobbied for the regulations in the past year, has said they are needed for crowd control during the busy summer tourism season. He noted that the Boardwalk Merchants Association requested the ordinance to prevent large crowds from milling around the entertainers and blocking access to their stores.
Responding to criticism from the public, Gillian pulled two previous versions of the entertainers ordinance for further study. The mayor stressed it was important to take as much time as needed to craft a compromise that would acceptable to both the merchants and performers.
“It doesn’t matter how many times. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting it right,” Gillian said in an interview after the Council meeting.
Voting 6-0, Council introduced the entertainers ordinance. A public hearing and final vote are scheduled March 23.
Council members indicated that the regulations have been discussed at length over the past year in an attempt to reach a compromise.
In comments echoed by other members of the governing body, Councilman Antwan McClellan said both sides had found “common ground.”
Councilman Michael DeVlieger said the performers and merchants had ample opportunity to express their opinions about the regulations.
“There couldn’t be an ordinance that was more open to the public than this one,” DeVlieger said.
One of the harshest critics who had objected to the proposed regulations in the past year embraced the latest version of the ordinance on Thursday.
“I think it’s awesome, and everything is great,” Andrew Leonetti, a 16-year-old Ocean City High School sophomore, said in public remarks to Council.
Leonetti, who plays drums in a Boardwalk band, had repeatedly appeared before Council in the past to lobby against any regulations. Based on criticism by Leonetti and one of his bandmates last year, the mayor yanked the original version of the ordinance.
Leonetti and other performers had complained that the proposed licensing fees were too expensive. They also voiced fears that the regulations would infringe on their constitutional right to free expression. But Leonetti said Thursday he had read the latest version of the ordinance “countless times” and believes it will work.
Nancy Neary, an Ocean City resident whose 14-year-old son, John, plays the violin on the Boardwalk, said the new version of the ordinance represents an improvement over previous proposals.
“Versus what we had last year, I think we’re going in the right direction,” Neary said in an interview.
The latest version drops a fingerprinting requirement that had drawn the strongest objections from the public during previous City Council discussions. Critics had felt it was heavy-handed.
Gillian initially proposed having adult-age performers submit to fingerprinting and background checks to confirm they did not have a serious criminal history. He agreed to withdraw the fingerprinting requirement after his administration discussed the measure with representatives of the entertainers and the Boardwalk merchants.
The ordinance would require performers to pay $50 for a license. However, they could be denied a license if they have a criminal history of “dishonesty” or have been convicted of a fourth-degree crime or higher.
Jim Tweed, the president of the local government watchdog group Fairness in Taxes, criticized the ordinance’s proposed maximum penalty – a $2,000 fine for violations – as too harsh. He said that would be equivalent to the penalty for “lying to the IRS.”
“Do you really want to put a kid playing a guitar on the Boardwalk in that serious of a category?” Tweed asked Council.
In response, McCrosson, the city solicitor, told Tweed it is doubtful a judge would impose the maximum $2,000 fine for anything but the most blatant of violations.
Under the ordinance, performers would be allowed on the ocean side of the Boardwalk at Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th streets. They could also perform at the Boardwalk’s oceanfront pavilions between Fifth and 14th streets. In addition, they would be allowed on the ocean side of the Boardwalk between Fifth and Sixth streets.
They would be permitted to perform on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. The hours would be between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. each of those nights except for Sunday, which would be from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Gillian explained that the performers would not be allowed on the Boardwalk on Tuesday and Thursday to avoid conflicts with the professional entertainment on those nights arranged by the merchants.