By Donald Wittkowski
Pardon me, Rover. Do you have your beach tag?
Well, the conversation may not go exactly that way, but beach tag inspectors could be fanning out by next summer to check a whole new “breed” of beach-goers. Dogs.
Knowing that many families choose their vacation destination based on its pet-friendly reputation, Councilman Keith Hartzell wants to allow dogs on the beach as a way to attract more visitors to Ocean City and keep the pooch-owning, year-round residents happy, too.
“We’re a family town, and most families have a pet. I think we’re pretty much a dog town,” Hartzell said.
Ocean City proclaims itself as “America’s Greatest Family Resort” in its marketing and tourism slogan. Hartzell believes the pet dog is an undeniable part of that “family.”
He is proposing a “dogs at dusk” plan that would allow canines on the beaches between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. By then, most of the daytime sunbathers have cleared out and vast stretches of the beachfront would open up for dogs to roam and play.
Currently, Ocean City bans dogs on the beaches at all times of the year, although they are commonly spotted romping on the sand and in the surf during offseason months.
Hartzell’s plan is only in the discussion stage at this point. He hopes it can be approved by the city in time for the summer of 2017, with a trial run in the spring.
He acknowledged that his plan would largely depend on dog owners accepting the responsibility of cleaning up pooch poop on the beaches.
“Obviously, it’s something people have to self-police,” he said. “You have to be responsible.”
However, he expressed confidence that the vast majority of owners would pick up after their dogs. Those who don’t would face a $500 fine under his proposal.
Hartzell also has proposed having the city place waste bags and dispensers at each beach entrance, as well as signs listing the rules for proper canine etiquette.
He has come up with a novel way to help pay for those things. Doggie beach tags costing about $10 each would be sold by the city to defray the expense.
Beach tag inspectors would occasionally check the dogs to make sure they are legal, Hartzell said.
Hartzell first unveiled his proposal during a City Council meeting in July. Mayor Jay Gillian, who attended the meeting, seemed receptive to the idea, but voiced concern about the dog droppings.
“It’s the cleaning up,” Gillian said. “You need a team to pick up for those who don’t.”
The mayor noted that he knows of some shore towns that allow smaller dogs on their beaches. That comment prompted a tongue-in-check response from Councilman Michael DeVlieger.
“I won’t support dog discrimination,” DeVlieger joked. “I’ve got a big dog.”
All kidding aside, the discussion underscored a number of issues that would have to be addressed before the seven-member City Council might even consider passing an ordinance allowing dogs on the beaches.
Hartzell followed up with a July 19 memo to city officials broadly outlining his plan. Hartzell said Gillian has promised to review the proposal and get back to him. He also said that most of his fellow Council members have told him they think it is a good idea.
“They want to talk to their constituents,” Hartzell said of the Council members. “There’s interest. I’m just trying to get a conversation started.”
In his memo, Hartzell attached background material about the dog-friendly beaches in Jupiter, Fla. He explained that he chose Jupiter because it is a popular winter retreat for Ocean City snowbirds.
“A lot of people in Ocean City have homes in Jupiter Beach,” he said. “We always kid that it is ‘Ocean City South.’”
Hartzell wants to give dogs access to all of Ocean City’s beaches beginning at dusk, but noted that he would be open to perhaps having designated canine areas instead.
Full access would allow dog owners to visit the beaches closest to their homes and summer rentals, making it more convenient for them than having to venture out to a designated area and hunt for parking, Hartzell said.
Another big issue is whether dogs would have to remain on leashes. Hartzell said he prefers allowing them to run free for play and exercise, but recommended in his memo that “all dogs must be on a leash.”
“I’m going back and forth on how to handle it,” he said of whether to require dogs to be leashed.
Hartzell describes himself as a dog lover, but he owns a cat. He said he wishes he had a dog, but explained that he travels a lot on business and isn’t home enough to give a dog the attention it would need. He said that many of his friends have dogs that are part of their family and are treated that way.
His proposal for dogs on the beaches actually grew out of a joke, when someone suggested to him, “You ought to have a Disney for dogs, a place where you could take your animals on vacation,” he said.
“A lot of people liked that idea,” Hartzell said.
Although dogs are currently prohibited on Ocean City’s beaches, there is a nearly one-mile stretch of sand nearby that is popular with pooches and their owners. Known formally as the Malibu Beach Wildlife Management Area, locals commonly call this state-owned land “Dog Beach.” It sits on the Egg Harbor Township side of the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, overlooking the Great Egg Harbor Inlet.
Danielle Teti, a Haddon Heights resident who was a first-time visitor to Malibu Beach this week, said she was able to find it by doing a Google search for dog-friendly beaches in southern New Jersey.
With her 11-year-old son, Sam, 9-year-old daughter, Gemma, and 5-year-old dog, Fergie, in tow, Teti came prepared. In addition to bringing towels, sunscreen and a chair for her children, she also packed a water bowl and a ball for her mixed-breed dog.
Teti said she would like to take her dog on Ocean City’s beaches, but is aware of the ban. When told of Hartzell’s proposal, she smiled.
“That would be awesome,” she said. “We could all go to Ocean City as a family.”
Teti stated she wouldn’t mind having to pay about $10 for a doggie beach tag. “I feel that would be reasonable,” she said.
Teti’s brother, Bill McKelvey, who brought his chocolate Labrador retriever, Hugo, to Malibu Beach, said it would be a good idea to have doggie beach tags if they helped to defray the cost of waste bags and dispensers.
Debbie Price, a regular at Malibu Beach, said she wouldn’t hesitate to pay for beach tags for her dogs if they could play on the Ocean City beaches.
Price, of Buena Vista Township, has been coming to Malibu Beach for six years. On Monday, she was accompanied by her three Chihuahuas, Glory, Nacho and Nugget.
She contemplated the possibility of taking all of her dogs on Ocean City’s beaches. Price and her husband also own two bigger dogs, in addition to the three Chihuahuas.
“It would be fun,” Price said. “It would be important to our family.”