By Donald Wittkowski
Baron, a 12-year-old Dalmatian and Labrador retriever mix who has been dubbed the “mayor of Dog Beach” by his owner, met a new constituent the other day when he touched noses with a rambunctious puppy named Minion.
Over the years, countless other canines have gotten acquainted in the same way on a nearly mile-long stretch of sand that is part of the state-owned Malibu Beach Wildlife Management Area, but is better known by its “Dog Beach” nickname.
While Baron may reign over these sands as the four-legged mayor, it is a human mayor who has come to the rescue to keep Dog Beach open amid threats it might be closed down because of concerns over stinky pooch poop and overflowing trash.
“That beach will remain Dog Beach,” Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian declared.
Speaking during the Jan. 26 meeting of City Council, Gillian briefly outlined plans to “save” Dog Beach by having Ocean City take over the responsibility of picking up the trash there, a job that was formerly handled by Cape May County.
Gillian explained that Ocean City will take charge of collecting the trash because Dog Beach – even though it is located outside the city – is popular with local residents as well as tourists who come to the resort town.
“We’ll do what we can to save Dog Beach,” he said.
Dog owners have been bringing their pooches to the waterfront parcel for decades. Dog Beach overlooks the Great Egg Harbor Inlet on the Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, side of the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.
Over the years, the exact location of Dog Beach has been the source of confusion. Some believe it is located in Ocean City, or somewhere else in Cape May County, while others think it is in Longport. Google Maps identifies the area as the “Somers Point Dog Park.”
Dog lovers, though, seem to have little or no trouble finding it. On a typical summer day, the beach is crowded with canines romping in the sand or splashing in the water. Even during the winter, the area remains popular with dog owners.
In interviews Wednesday, dog owners expressed relief that Dog Beach will not be closed down after all. At the same time, they praised Gillian for proposing a plan to keep the area clean.
“We’re very grateful that he’s lending a helping hand,” Steven Vanaman, an Egg Harbor Township resident and Baron’s owner, said of Gillian. “One of the major issues here is trash pickup. They keep passing it from county to county. Nobody wants to do it.”
Vanaman’s girlfriend, Dotty Jenkins, also of Egg Harbor Township, became so disgusted with the bags of dog poop and trash that began to pile up that she handprinted a sign urging everyone at Dog Beach to dispose of their waste in a dumpster across the street.
Jenkins pointed out the sign while Baron played on the beach Wednesday afternoon with a few other dogs, including Minion, a 2-month-old Australian cattle dog mix owned by Melissa and Peter Papale of Somers Point.
“This is our first time here,” Peter Papale said. “This is a great place for us to take our dog. This will be our new spot now.”
Although the Papales and Minion were newcomers to Dog Beach, Vanaman has been a regular since 2000. Vanaman joked that Baron has been coming to Dog Beach so long that he has become its canine leader.
“Baron is the mayor of Dog Beach,” Vanaman said. “He always wants to get involved in everybody’s business.”
While spending time at Dog Beach with Baron and Vanaman over the summer, Jenkins began to notice that the trash wasn’t being collected. That’s what prompted her to place her handwritten sign at the entryway to the beach.
“I made the sign because I didn’t like how the trash bags weren’t being picked up,” Jenkins said.
Caryn Shinske, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed Friday that the agency removed the trash cans from Dog Beach a few weeks before Labor Day. She said they were removed after Cape May County stopped picking up the trash.
“If nobody is there to empty the trash cans, why have them there?” Shinske explained of the DEP’s decision.
The DEP oversees the Malibu Beach Wildlife Management Area, including the part that includes Dog Park, through its Division of Fish and Wildlife. The agency has posted signs reminding people to pick up their trash. One sign warns of a $200 fine for littering. Another sign threatens that the area will be closed “to drive-in access if excessive littering continues.”
As concerns swirl about a possible shutdown of Dog Beach, the DEP is reviewing a plan by Ocean City to take over trash collection. Shinske said the city has proposed picking up the trash twice a week from May to October using a dumpster.
Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen noted that the city’s Public Works Department already collects trash in the north end of town near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, so it would be easy to do pickups at Dog Beach.
“The mayor has volunteered a Public Works truck to pick up the trash,” Bergen said.
On Wednesday, a trash can at Dog Beach was empty and the surrounding grounds appeared free of litter.
Echoing Gillian’s comments to City Council, Bergen said Ocean City has offered to pick up the trash because of Dog Beach’s popularity among local residents and the town’s tourists.
“In the summertime, it’s jamming over there,” he said.
Cape May County, meanwhile, decided to stop picking up the trash around Labor Day after the DEP had removed the trash cans, a county official said.
“It was way more than our people could handle. It was disgusting,” Karen Coughlin, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, said of the piles of trash and dog waste.
Coughlin’s agency operates the Ocean City-Longport Bridge. Coughlin said that Cape May County, not the bridge commission, apparently entered into an agreement with the state to assume the responsibility for collecting the trash at Dog Beach after the new Ocean City-Longport Bridge opened in 2002.
Coughlin stated she has been unable to find a formal, written document between the county and the state for trash pickup, so she believes it may have been a handshake agreement. Once the DEP removed the trash cans, the county pulled out.
“It was getting so out of control,” Coughlin said.
Now, it appears Ocean City is ready to take over the job.
“It’s a worthwhile endeavor,” Bergen said.