By Donald Wittkowski
Ocean City is joining a growing movement among communities at the Jersey Shore to ban smoking on the beaches.
Citing health concerns from second-hand smoke and unsightly litter from discarded cigarette butts, City Council approved an ordinance Thursday night that will make it illegal to smoke on all of the beaches starting in July.
“The majority of people want smoking to be banned on the beaches,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said.
Bergman cast the lone dissenting vote when the smoking ban was introduced by Council in May. However, she dropped her opposition to join her fellow Council members in giving the measure final approval Thursday by a 5-0 vote. Councilmen Peter Madden and Tony Wilson were absent from the meeting.
Bergman initially thought a ban would be too restrictive and might discourage smokers from visiting Ocean City.
In changing her mind, she noted that all of the emails she received from the public in the past three weeks supported the smoking ban. She said it is her job as an elected official to represent the majority of her constituents.
“There are a lot of smokers. However, there are a lot more nonsmokers,” Bergman said.
Ocean City already prohibits smoking on the Boardwalk, at city parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and other public facilities.
Smoking will be banned on the beaches starting in 20 days, coinciding with the height of the summer tourism season.
Ocean City is getting a jump on proposed statewide legislation, now awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s approval to become law, that would impose a partial smoking ban on all public beaches in New Jersey. The legislation would allow municipalities to set aside 15 percent of their beaches as designated smoking areas. Assuming the governor signs the bill, it would not go into effect for 180 days.
Dorothy McCrosson, city solicitor, told Council that Ocean City is free to approve a local ordinance to ban smoking on the beach without being in conflict with the proposed state legislation.
By approving its own ordinance, Ocean City now joins with more than 25 seashore towns in Atlantic, Cape May, Ocean and Monmouth counties that have already enacted beach smoking bans.
“This ordinance guarantees that the need to breathe smoke-free air shall take priority over smoking,” according to the language.
Ocean City’s smoking ban includes financial penalties for violating the ordinance. For the first offense, fines would range from $100 to $250. Second and subsequent offenses would result in fines between $500 and $1,000.
Mayor Jay Gillian, who proposed the smoking ban, would like to have a bigger police presence on the beaches to enforce the ordinance and to also clamp down on illegal drinking, McCrosson said.
In throwing their support behind the ban, the Council members repeatedly cited the need to protect beach-goers from the dangers of second-hand smoke. They also said they object to seeing so many discarded cigarette butts littering the beach.
“It’s a health thing. It’s a pollution thing,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger said.
Councilman Antwan McClellan characterized it as a “baby step” toward making Ocean City a healthier place to live and visit.
“Everyone’s not health-conscious, but we’re getting there,” McClellan said.
Council voted after listening to comments from the public. Of the 10 members of the public who spoke, eight supported the smoking ban, one was opposed and one person suggested delaying the ordinance for further study.
DeVlieger said he believes the comments made during the Council meeting in support of the smoking ban represented the views of most of the public at large.
“In my mind, it’s a no-brainer,” he said of voting in favor of the ban.
Echoing the sentiments of Council, members of the public who spoke in support of the ban focused on the health hazards of second-hand smoke. They also said Ocean City could risk harming its image as a family-friendly vacation resort if it did not take steps to protect children from smoking.
“It is a family-friendly issue. A lot of families like to sit on the beach without second-hand smoke,” said Kim Burns, a representative of the statewide advocacy group Tobacco Free for a Healthy New Jersey.
Another speaker, Dr. Debbie Goebel, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist, said children are particularly vulnerable to second-hand smoke because of their small lungs.
Goebel, who practices in Omaha, Neb., but has a summer home in Ocean City, also told Council that she has grown frustrated with walking on the beaches and “always seeing cigarette butts.”
Michael Deckard, an Ocean City resident, called the beaches a “golden asset” that must be protected from smoke and discarded cigarette butts. Reading a list of some of the seashore towns that have already enacted smoking bans, Deckard said it is particularly important for Ocean City to keep its beaches beautiful if it wants to continue being a top-tier tourist destination.
“They’re our competition in the marketplace,” he said of the other towns that prohibit smoking on their beaches.
Bethlehem, Pa., resident Joan Witiak, whose family has lived in Ocean City since the 1980s, said the smoking ban would be a progressive move to promote a healthy lifestyle.
Witiak told Council that she recently had to leave a favorite spot on the beach when a smoker sat down nearby.
“I had to get up and move, and I don’t think I should have to do that,” she said.
Ron Hutchinson, a Carlisle, Pa., resident who once lived in Ocean City, was the only public speaker to oppose the smoking ban. The 76-year-old Hutchinson, a smoker for 60 years, said he believes the ban would infringe on his personal rights.
“My freedom is being taken away,” he said.
Hutchinson asserted that there are already too many rules and regulations governing the beaches. He said he grew tired with over-regulation and decided to move out of Ocean City years ago.
Now, he fears the smoking ban on the beaches will be one more rule that discourages him from coming back to visit Ocean City.
“I beg of you, don’t listen to a few people who don’t like second-hand smoke,” he said while unsuccessfully urging Council to kill the smoking ban.