By Donald Wittkowski
Ocean City may become the next town 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 introduced an ordinance Thursday night that would make it illegal to smoke on all of the beaches in town starting this summer.
Council introduced the measure by a 6-1 vote, with Councilwoman Karen Bergman the lone dissenter. She expressed concerns that the proposed ban would be too restrictive and might discourage smokers from visiting Ocean City.
“I don’t think we should be doing this,” she said.
Bergman called smoking a “form of relaxation.” Instead of an outright ban, she suggested a possible compromise to have designated smoking areas along the beaches.
Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing and take a final vote on the smoking ban on June 14. The measure was proposed by Mayor Jay Gillian, but needs approval by the seven-member governing body to become law.
“This ordinance guarantees that the need to breathe smoke-free air shall take priority over smoking,” according to the language.
Suggesting that final approval is far from guaranteed, some Council members indicated they are concerned about how the ordinance would be enforced and whether it would simply prompt smokers to dump their cigarette butts somewhere else.
“Obviously, this is a really huge issue,” Councilman Keith Hartzell said.
Before he would consider giving the ban final approval, Hartzell emphasized that he wants to see a comprehensive plan explaining how the ordinance would be enforced and where smokers could dispose of their cigarette butts if they are not allowed on the beaches.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said the mayor would like to have a bigger police presence on the beaches to enforce the smoking ban and also clamp down on illegal drinking. Ocean City already bans alcohol on the beaches.
Councilman Bob Barr questioned whether people would think a smoking ban is a “little harsh.” But he also spoke of the unpleasant experience of having nonsmokers exposed to dangerous second-hand smoke.
Barr and Councilman Tony Wilson said it will be important for Council to collect as much public feedback as possible while grappling with the issue of smokers’ rights versus the rights of nonsmokers to enjoy a smoke-free environment.
“I think we need to have our heads on a swivel,” Wilson said of being open minded.
Ocean City already prohibits smoking on the Boardwalk, at city parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and other public facilities.
The proposed ban includes financial penalties for violating the ordinance. For the first offense, there would be a fine of at least $100, but no more than $250. Second and subsequent offenses would result in a minimum fine of $500 and up to a maximum of $1,000.
In addition to having health concerns about smoking, some of the Council members also said they strongly object to cigarette butts littering the beaches.
“What makes me absolutely nuts is when they throw their butts on the beach,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger said.
Calling it an “excruciating” task, Hartzell noted that he picks up hundreds of discarded cigarette butts when he participates in Ocean City’s annual beach cleanup.
Meanwhile, if the ordinance becomes law, Ocean City will join a growing list of communities that prohibit smoking on the beaches. More than a dozen seashore towns in Atlantic, Cape May, Ocean and Monmouth counties have already enacted beach smoking bans.
Then-Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation in 2016 prohibiting smoking at state-run beaches and parks.
In other business Thursday, Council heard complaints from a handful of residents who live in a flood-prone neighborhood on 14th Street. Appealing to the city for help, they said the situation has grown worse recently and has some of them thinking of selling their homes.
“It’s insane,” Susanne Caliendo, one of the residents of 14th Street, said of the flooding.
Caliendo, in comments echoed by her neighbors, told Council that the flooding has ruined her grass lawn and may force her to move out.
Other neighbors said the source of the flooding remains a mystery. They agreed that it is even worse than just a few years ago. At times, the flooding is so bad that neighborhood children must board their school buses in the middle of the street to avoid the water, they said.
McCrosson, the city solicitor, assured the neighbors that city officials will investigate the flooding with the help of the Public Works Department and try to stop it.
Also Thursday, Council approved a settlement of a Superior Court lawsuit filed by developer John Flood over a housing project he had proposed to build on property he owns on 16th Street and Haven Avenue.
Flood had wanted to develop 10 so-called “coastal cottages,” a controversial form of housing. However, City Council voted in 2016 to eliminate coastal cottages from a redevelopment zone where they were supposed to be clustered along Haven Avenue.
Council revoked coastal cottages from the Haven Avenue development corridor in response to complaints that a similar project had exacerbated flooding, parking and overcrowding problems in surrounding neighborhoods.
Flood’s lawsuit against the city sought a court order overturning the Council vote. The settlement will result in the litigation being dropped. In exchange, Council will amend the city’s zoning ordinance to encourage the construction of new single-family homes in a development zone that includes Flood’s property, according to the terms of the settlement.
Flood declined to comment on the settlement. In the city’s May 8 mayoral election, Flood lost to Gillian by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Flood is a former city councilman.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Council honored star Ocean City High School swimmer Maggie Wallace, the holder of school records in six events. She is also a reigning state champion.
With Wallace standing next to the Council members, Council President Peter Madden read a proclamation recognizing her many swimming honors. Wallace, a senior, will swim for Indiana University next year.