OCEAN CITY – Despite objections from staff, the city’s elected officials gave the go ahead this week to allow vehicles on the beach to surf fish in the offseason and will initiate a pilot program this October if the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approves.
During Tuesday’s Mayor and City Council work session, Ocean City property owner Tom Heiple, and his wife Alice, voiced their concerns over Ocean City allowing vehicles on the beach in the off-season. The matter was scheduled for the Mayor and Council to discuss later in the afternoon.
“My wife and I are very much opposed to this because we think it would adversely affect our enjoyment here,” Tom Heiple said.
The Heiples were most concerned over the vehicles and fishermen’s adverse effect on the beach environment as Ocean City was recently rated one of the cleanest beaches in the country. They also believed the program would ultimately decrease property values in the proposed areas as vehicles on the beach would limit other’s enjoyment.
“I would be very disappointed if the council went forward with this,” Tom Heiple said.
Ocean City resident Anita Chandler, whose father was a founding member of the Assateague Mobile Sport Fishermen Association and is an avid sports fishermen herself who holds surf fishing permits and licenses in Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina, spoke in favor of allowing vehicles on the beach during the off-season for surf fishing only.
“I have many fond memories of riding on the beach as a child,” she said. “If you look at Delaware, North Carolina and Assateague, oil is really not a problem and those of us who want to do this is not going to do anything to have it taken away, so we pick up after ourselves. I think it would increase business and I am in favor of this. I believe in free and open beaches. I believe in to protect and preserve but not prohibit.”
Chandler left the council with a list of suggestions if the city moves forward, such as those driving on the beach during the off-season must be actively engaged in surf fishing at all times, lowering the proposed cost for a permit from $75 to $50 for residents, setting a stiff penalty for those driving on the beach without a permit, extending the surf fishing season from mid-October to mid-April, and having the proposed area move from 27th to 94th streets to 118th Street to the Fenwick Island line.
“I believe holders of permits should self-police,” she said. “Believe me if I see someone on that beach that doesn’t have a permit or littering, give me a number and I will call. Most of the people that fish will do the same because again, once you give us this privilege we don’t want to do anything to lose it.”
Several weeks ago, Councilman Joe Mitrecic suggested the council consider allowing vehicles on the beach during the off-season for surf fishing that had come to a stop many years ago.
This week City Engineer Terry McGean returned to the council after he had met with several city departments to discuss the matter.
“While the staff feels this is feasible, the staff recommendation is not to do this,” McGean said. “The biggest concern is the difference in our beach, Ocean City, and what you would find in Assateague, Delaware or North Carolina.”
McGean submitted, unlike Assateague Island or the Delaware State Parks that allow public vehicles on their beach, Ocean City is fully developed on the ocean front. Staff felt that vehicles traveling up and down Ocean City’s beach would be in conflict with pedestrians walking along the beach and more critically, with pedestrians crossing to and from the beach.
Other concerns included, difficulty in controlling access between the 13 potential vehicle access points to the beach, enforcement since the police do not regularly patrol the beach in the off-season and environmental concerns, such as fuel spills and dune damage.
If the council wished to pursue an on-sand vehicle (OSV) program, the staff recommended to have a one-year pilot program to allow vehicles on the beach Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Nov. 1 to March 30, excluding holidays, which is the same time frame horseback riding is allowed on the beach.
The proposed area is 27th to 94th streets because there are no access points along the Boardwalk or along what is called “condo row” in north Ocean City.
Staff recommended charging $75 per permit because Assateague charges $90, and Delaware charges $70 in state and $125 out of state. A permit would require proof of a driver’s license and vehicle registration, acknowledge receipt and reading of rules and regulations, waive city liability and be responsible for any damage to the beach including fuel spills. Failure to obey rules and regulations will result in loss of permit with no refund plus fines.
Staff did not believe in the requirement to be actively engaged in surf fishing because it will be difficult to enforce and saw no difference between vehicles on the beach for fishing versus one parked for surfing or simply spending time in the sun.
McGean added he has not had the chance to discuss the matter in length with DNR.
“The State of Maryland owns our beach and we have the right to maintain it, so we would need to work out this program with the DNR if the council would want to do it,” he said.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas has issues with allowing vehicles on the beach and is against the program.
“I don’t know how you are going to enforce this. We have the beach for pedestrian use, and now horses and I don’t think horses and cars mix,” she said. “I am in agreement with the staff. This is something that adds difficulty for the staff.”
Councilman Brent Ashley pointed out horses are allowed from 27th Street south, and surf fishing would be 27th Street north.
“I have always thought and often said that part of our job as council members was to present new ideas to promote tourism and to enhance the economic viability of the town. Every bit of extra business, particularly in the off-season, helps us all,” he said.
Ashley made a motion to approve a one-year trial based on the conditions recommended by staff and to have staff develop a marketing plan for the off-season activity in conjunction with horseback riding.
“Surf fishermen are stewards of the local environment. They are very environmentally sensitive as most fishermen are. They are very aware of the balance out there and how they need to keep that balance in order for their desire to fish to continue,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.
The mayor was in agreement with Chandler in having the permit allow vehicles on the beach for surf fishing only as well as those who apply for a permit must have a fishing license.
Ashley amended his motion accordingly, and included allowing vehicles on the beach to surf fish on the weekends to the amendment.
“When I first brought this up, it was in fact exclusively for surf fishing to be able to use the beach, and I never envisioned the beach being a freeway, and I think as long as we keep surf fishing and licensed surf fisherman on the beach I think it will cut down the chances of us having an issue down the road … if it works out well this year and next year we want to have surfers that might be something to look at that time,” Mitrecic said.
Mitrecic knows there are hundreds surf fishermen in the area that would appreciate the opportunity to pull up on the beach and fish during the off-season.
“Maybe they will go have lunch at one of the local restaurants, buy their bait and tackle, snacks and sodas from a local convenient store and enjoy their day in Ocean City,” he said.
The council voted 6-1 with Pillas opposed to approve vehicles on the beach during the off-season for surf fishing only subject to DNR’s review and approval and to create a marketing plan.