Merchants Irked By Council’s Bow To ACLU Concerns

OCEAN CITY – Apparently, change is not the type of thing that some Boardwalk merchants believe in, as a summer of tough times and new rules has left some storeowners fit to be tied.

A week after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the town of Ocean City came to a verbal agreement to no longer enforce and eventually amend the town law that prohibited any amplification used by street performers, merchants shot back, claiming that they are being treated unfairly and that all regulations are being directed at them.

“The concern from the merchants is that this isn’t fair and they feel as though they’ve been targeted this year,” said Boardwalk Development Association (BDA) President Vicki Barrett, who acted as a vocal liason for a handful of merchants at Monday’s council meeting. “They feel that the restrictions that have been made on the Boardwalk are way to restrictive for them to run their businesses and this change effects them.”

The argument seems to stem from a new town ordinance that applies to outdoor display guidelines for Boardwalk stores,  requiring them to have their amplified speakers turned into their store rather than project sound out onto the public Boardwalk.

According to Barrett, merchants feel that the street performers being allowed to use small amplifiers or battery operated CD players for their personal acts, creates an unfair or un-level playing field.

“Personally, I think that we need those people up on the Boardwalk adding to the culture and the atmosphere because they have as much right to be there as a T-shirt shop, but when you talk to people, they only see their own side of the argument sometimes,” Barrett said.

Prior to the summer season, after months of deliberation and years of apparent planning, the town passed a new outdoor display guideline ordinance, which laid out new rules for the allowable layout for displaying merchandise outside the store, while trying to create an across-the-board improvement of enforcement to ensure that everyone was obeying the new rules.

According to Barrett, two stores have lost their outdoor display privileges this summer for a week each after violating the town’s new display guidelines.

“Enforcement was the biggest talking point with these new rules, and we knew if we could enforce it better, we could make things better little by little,” said Barrett. “We are just trying to take baby steps cause we can’t make all the changes we need to in one season.”

The amplification issue is just one of many for Boardwalk shops, who have dealt with some bad public relations in June after several violent episodes resulting in arrests, the proliferation of salvia in many shops and rumors of explicit music and loud noises coming from a handful of storefronts.

“We are clinging to our family image in Ocean City, and we are trying to fight for our livelihoods to keep it,” said Councilwoman and Boardwalk shop owner Margaret Pillas. “Once that bad language or type of behavior takes over a place, then with it comes a whole different lifestyle and we don’t want that.”

Pillas said that the new ordinance might be a bit confusing to some merchants, as in the instance of the amplified speakers being required to be turned to the interior of the store, it is only required north of 3rd Street.

“I really think that they are trying to push the envelope a little bit because they feel as though so many changes are being made this year, and it’s always hard when in a transitional phase like we are now,” she said.

Barrett said that the new outdoor display ordinance is starting to show signs of its effectiveness and praised the “vast majority” of storeowners for making the Boardwalk a cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing place.

“I looked at some pictures from two years ago when we started this process and compared them to some pictures I took last weekend, and it’s absolutely amazing how much better everything looks,” said Barrett. “The mayor [Rick Meehan] even told me a few weeks ago that he’s had almost no complaints about the Boardwalk this year, when, as he says, his bucket is usually full by now.”

Members of council assured Barrett on Monday night that the amplification on the Boardwalk for buskers and for merchants will be monitored by the town’s various noise ordinances.

“Most of their amplifiers are going to be battery powered and very small, probably only 15 watts,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “I don’t think that the sound they are going to be creating is going to be like the volume in some of these stores.”

Business might not be at an all-time high, or even morale for that matter, but in a year when everyone is looking for a positive, especially on the Boardwalk, the most notable plus for the tight-knit business community is the overall improvement of its aesthetics.

Whether the look of the Boardwalk has improved in lieu of the changes or despite them, Barrett says that’s a thing that they’ll look at when looking at phase two of the improvement plan in the fall.

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