OC Voters Might Weigh In On Beach Smoking

OCEAN CITY – A future ban on smoking on Ocean City’s beaches and Boardwalk will get at least a little lip service after town officials this week agreed to discuss the issue, or more specifically to discuss adding a public opinion poll question on the topic to the upcoming town election ballot.

At the close of Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, the issue of exploring the possibility of a smoking ban on the resort’s beaches and Boardwalk was brought up as part of a larger discussion about adding public opinion questions to the town’s election ballot in October. Pillas said she was floating the idea of adding questions to the October ballot on behalf of her constituents, some of whom sought to have the beach smoking issue and other brought before a vote by the town’s electorate.

It is uncertain if any questions will be added to the ballot or even what form they would take. For example, the ballot questions could take the form of a binding referendum or merely a public opinion straw poll to judge how the voters and taxpayers feel about certain issues. Regardless, the beach smoking issue will at least get some play at a future work session, whether it ends up on the ballot or not after the council agreed to put it on the agenda.

Pillas said later in the week she asked about adding ballot questions on several issues including a beach and Boardwalk smoking ban at the request of her constituents. She said she was uncertain if a ban on smoking would have any traction, but felt compelled to at least raise the issue after hearing from voters.

“This is a question that I’ve been asked off and on over the years, and I think it’s a subject that merits at least some discussion,” she said. “Let’s see if we can talk about this. My role is just putting it out for discussion, and I would like to ask the opinion of the voters. I don’t have an agenda.”

Pillas and Councilwoman Mary Knight were recipients of a recent letter from at least one Ocean City resident imploring the council to debate the issue and ultimately prohibit smoking on the beaches and Boardwalk in the resort. Ocean City resident David Fox said in the letter to council members the time has come to follow the lead of other beach communities in the country that have instituted similar bans.

“If Ocean City tries to claim it is a family resort, there is no reason that they should permit children to breathe in second-hand smoke or for little ones to handle cigarette butts they find in the sand,” the letter reads. “It is very unpleasant to settle your family on the beach and an hour later, someone parks next to you and lights up a cigar or a cigarette with the wind blowing right into your space.”

Knight said on Tuesday she was going to research the issue and take a close look to see if similar bans were achieving the desired results in other jurisdictions.

“I am going to do some homework on this and pull up some of the beach jurisdictions that have banned smoking on the beach,” she said. “I think there are quite a few and I’d like to take a look at how it works in other places.

Knight said enforcement of a smoking ban on the beach and Boardwalk would likely be the biggest issue.

“My biggest concern is how do you enforce it,” she said. “I like the fact that our lifeguards are looking at the water and not at the beach.”

According to Fox’s letter, dozens of beach resorts around the country have instituted beach and smoking bans and enforcement has not been a major problem. Fox urged town officials to do the research before forming any opinion.

“With the large number of municipalities that already passed such legislation, I am sure that they have found a way to enforce the laws and that we should contact them to see how they do it,” the letter reads.

Ocean City officials would have to look no further than nearby Bethany Beach, Del. to find a working model, although the size of the resort and the number of visitors is vastly different. Bethany Beach officials passed a smoking ban on its beaches and Boardwalk in 2008 and haven’t experienced any real resistance, according to Mayor Tony McClenny, who pushed for the new law.

“We had public hearings, letters, calls, emails, visits from groups both pro and con and we got to the point where it was time to put it to a vote and our council passed it narrowly,” he said this week. “It has proven to be very popular and we’ve heard few if any complaints. It’s really a non-issue for the vast majority.”

Bethany Beach does not allow smoking on the beach or its Boardwalk from May 15 to Sept. 15, and bans smoking at its public parks and playgrounds all year. There were some accommodations made to smokers in the town’s ordinance including nine or 10 smoking stations at designated areas along the one-mile stretch of beach.

“There are places designated where smokers can enjoy a cigarette without bothering anyone else and then deposit their butt in an appropriate place,” said McClenny. “That’s one of the big things. Cigarette butts are the largest trash items on Delaware beaches.”

McClenny said in the three years since Bethany implemented its stringent smoking laws, there has been little resistance and fewer enforcement actions.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever fined anybody,” he said. “If somebody misses the signage, usually somebody else on the beach or Boardwalk will remind them and they’ll politely put it out.”

McClenny said Bethany officials were aware of the risk of alienating some visitors with a stringent no smoking policy, but it was a risk they were willing to take in light of the public support for the new law.

“It was a bit of a gamble because we didn’t know what the reaction would be,” he said. “What we ended up with is a system and a law that seems to accommodate most folks and we haven’t had any problems.”

Closer to home, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said this week he hasn’t formed a strong opinion about a proposed smoking ban one way or the other, but the volume of public interest in the issue warrants some discussion.

“I think that’s a pretty big issue,” he said. “People over the years have sent countless letters, emails and phone calls about this, and it is certainly a topic that bears some discussion. Again, we want our lifeguards facing the ocean and not the beach.”

However, Council President Joe Mitrecic said he hasn’t heard much clamoring for a ban on smoking on the beach and Boardwalk.

“To be honest, we have millions of visitors each year and we get very few people complaining about smoking on the beach or on the Boardwalk,” he said. “As a non-smoker, I understand where some of this is coming from, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been a big issue.”

Mitrecic said discussion about banning smoking on the beach would have to include economic considerations.

“We have to take a close look and see who this impacts,” he said. “If it is one half of the people who visit Ocean City, or one third, we need to consider that. We certainly don’t want to turn anybody away and send them to another resort.”