OCEAN CITY – One thing seems certain — Ocean City will have a restricted smoking policy on its beach next summer, but officials will take this season to develop a plan with staff and consider public comments before passing a new law in September.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Mayor and City Council held a discussion considering restricting smoking on the beach. Planning, Community and Development Director Matt Margotta and Planner Bob Nelson presented an analysis of the subject as well as draft ordinance that would ban smoking from the beach and Boardwalk for discussion purposes.
Margotta recognized smoking on the beach was placed as a top priority action in Ocean City’s Strategic Plan effort as well as the decision is value-based of an individual.
Research shows national and regional communities have a wide array of methods of enacting smoking bans, or restricting smoking from certain public areas, with each area having different ways in enforcing and maintaining the policy.
For example, Ocean City’s neighbors to the north of Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach both ban smoking from their Boardwalk and parks but provide designated smoking areas on their beaches.
The proposed ordinance before the council was based off of Dewey Beach’s ordinance with straight forward language of a smoking ban altogether. Fenwick Island also has a straight forward smoking ban in place on its beach.
Margotta submitted, establishing smoking areas with signage and receptacles at each street end in Ocean City will have an initial cost estimated from $7,650 to $27,750.
“The easiest way to put this to be as blunt as possible is this is a subject that is value-based, and probably for the most part most of you have probably already made up your mind on this issue, and we [staff] need to get down to the how’s. The how’s is how are we going to do this,” Margotta said. “I can give you as much information as you want to support or not support a ban. It is out there but it is not going to change your mind.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight explained the best way to describe the council’s prerogative is not a “ban” but a “smoking policy that accommodates everybody.”
“It accommodates the 80 percent of folks that don’t smoke, and the 20 percent that do smoke,” Knight said. “Some of the research I did I saw that destinations that implemented a smoking policy that accommodates everybody … at a very down time, or when things weren’t as good beach tags went up, sales tax went up, so it is value-based but for me personally I look at it as also the advantage when it comes to revenue, the experience in Ocean City, and the family.”
To get to the point, Councilman Brent Ashley, who has been an advocate in banning smoking from Ocean City’s beach, placed a motion to move a smoke-free beach ordinance forward with an effective date of May 1, 2015. “This will give the town time to do a public awareness campaign, and work out the logistics,” he said.
Ashley pointed out the idea of a smoke-free beach in Ocean City was first proposed over 20 years ago. Since then, over 190 other beaches in the U.S. have gone smoke-free and the list is growing.
“So, why have all of these other beaches gone smoke-free? Well the answer is simple, it’s economics. The number of smokers in the U.S. is at an all-time low and continues to decrease. The facts are there and the writing is on the wall, it’s good for business. Pristine smoke-free beaches will attract more tourists who will fill more motel rooms and restaurants and patronize other resort businesses,” he said. “The smoke free beach ship has already sailed and we’re still standing on the dock. If we want to remain competitive, we better hop on it.”
Councilman Doug Cymek said he was not prepared to take a vote that day with no identified plan in place.
“I am not a smoker but I am respective of smokers’ rights. I am trying to figure out a way how we can delineate the beach to provide an area that would provide a buffer between smokers and non-smokers. I still haven’t resolved that in my mind how we would do that,” he said. “I have a problem voting for legislation before the big plan is decided in how we are going to do this, so I would like to see more conversation and public comment. We are not in a position to move an ordinance forward today.”
Council President Lloyd Martin was also in need of a big picture before taking a vote to ban smoking.
“I want us to be America’s beach. I want a beach that welcomes and is friendly for everybody,” he said. “Smoke-free areas I am all about and am all for. I voted years ago to ban smoking in public parks and children’s playgrounds. To me the water’s edge is a child’s playground but also I don’t want to give you a 12-foot radius to smoke around a pole, and if you get out of that 12-foot area I don’t want you to get a ticket because you are four feet away. We need to have a plan on what we’re doing and how we are going to get there.”
There is no doubt smoking is a health and environmental hazard, Councilman Dennis Dare said, and agreed with having an effective date of May of next year.
“I would like to see by the end of this summer for staff to come back with a specific recommendation,” he said. “I would like discussion before we vote for a final ordinance.”
Councilman Joe Mitrecic supports designated smoking areas on the beach but held concern of implementing a law that he will not be present for if the decision is held off till the fall. Mitrecic is currently running unopposed to represent Ocean City as a Worcester County Commissioner during the next election in November. He added three Ocean City council members are up for re-election in November and the majority of the council may change at that time.
“I support the start date of May 1, 2015, but it is very difficult for me to vote for something that I may or may not be here for the discussion on how it is going to be implemented,” he said. “I know one thing is for sure. I will be gone Nov. 4, so if we are going to discuss this during the summer time and it come to some sort of realization on how we are going to do it during the summer, which we don’t usually do, then I can support it.”
In the past, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas has pushed for the issue to be placed on the ballot as a referendum question to gain consensus from Ocean City taxpayers as well as back up the current council’s decision when a new council is place.
“I sat here last year and we were supposed to have this conversation last season, and it is ironic to me every time we have this conversation before the season starts we just don’t have time, and here we are again another year saying the same thing. That is why I want it to go to referendum,” Pillas said.
Cymek pointed out a referendum would gather only 3,000-plus opinions on the subject as only residents would be able to vote.
“I don’t think the smokers will prevail, so I think it would be a waste of effort when we know how it will turn out,” he said. “I think we owe it to the people that visit our town, people that own properties here but are non-residents to have a say in this as well.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres clarified according to Ocean City’s Charter the public response to a referendum question on the ballot does not require the council to implement legislation. With that said, Pillas pulled the concept of a referendum question off of the table.
Mayor Rick Meehan supports a restricting smoking policy on the beach but reminded the council there are more questions than answers as far as implementation at this point.
“We need recommendations from staff in how to designate smoking areas on the beach, and where they would be placed in order not to interfere with the general public who want to be away from the smoke. How are we going to do that? Where are they going to be? How are we going to enforce it? Is it going to be a strict enforcement? Is it going to be a passive enforcement? We need you [staff] to work with the police department and other departments in the Town of Ocean City to tell us how you recommend we do that,” Meehan said.
The mayor added an educational program also needs to be put in place in how Ocean City will communicate with the public the changes have been made.
“This is not an easy task. It is not a win-win. No matter what we do, we are going to make somebody unhappy but if we set a date as of May 1, 2015 this will be in place and we work toward that goal,” Meehan said. “The public will certainly weigh in. Any decision we make up here that is subject to a change the general public will know what the goal of this council is, and we will take comments as we move forward.”
Knight furthered there are grants available to help cover costs in educating the public and setting up designated smoking areas on the beach. For example, between signage, educational posters and ash urns, Rehoboth Beach is looking at a cost of about $31,000 to implement their restricted smoking policy on the beach. However, $15,000 of that funding has been secured from the Delaware Department of Public Health, administered through the American Lung Association.
“While you [staff[ are doing this plan and study, and I am probably pushing it, I would hope that you also look at the Boardwalk at the same time,” Knight said.
Ashley asked staff to consider the bus shelters as well and amended his motion to have the council move forward with an ordinance to restrict smoking on the beach with all information from staff to be received by Sept. 1, an ordinance drafted and voted on by Sept. 30, and the ordinance going into effect May 1, 2015. The council voted 5-2 to approve the motion with Cymek and Martin in opposition.