Smoke-Free Beach Debate To Begin Anew In Ocean City

Smoke-Free Beach Debate To Begin Anew In Ocean City

OCEAN CITY- As the Mayor and City Council gear up to address a potential smoking ban on the beach, neighbors of Ocean City to the north spoke with The Dispatch this week on the progress made with their own smoke-free policies.

The issue of banning smoking on Ocean City’s beach has been debated throughout the past. Most recently Councilman Brent Ashley brought up the topic last month, and a formal discussion among the Mayor and City Council is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon’s work session.

Ashley pointed out during strategic planning sessions, the Mayor and City Council discussed having Ocean City follow some of its competitor resorts and officially institute a smoke-free beach.

“I think the support is there to move forward with some type of plan to be proactive in this [smoke-free beach],” Ashley said at that time. “All of our neighbors have done this.”

A smoke-free beach in Ocean City was last formally discussed among city officials in July of 2012 when the Mayor and City Council was in consensus to implement smoke-free areas on the beach by the following summer but the topic never returned for further public discussion. A public hearing was held in December of 2010 regarding a smoking ban on Ocean City’s beaches, Boardwalk and at public parks.

A handful of citizens spoke for and against the question, but the council at that time decided to place cigarette butt cans and signage along the beach and the Boardwalk, providing smokers with smoking stations. A law was not passed mandating smoking at designated smoking stations but served as a request for smokers to use the stations. However, the council did vote to ban smoking in Ocean City’s public parks

Currently all of Ocean City’s neighbors to the north including Fenwick Island, Dewey Beach, Rehoboth Beach and Delaware state parks, have smoking bans in place on the beach.

The City of Rehoboth Beach voted in early March to ban smoking from their Boardwalk and bandstand area, and limited smoking to designated smoking areas on the beach effective as of May 15. First offenders will be issued a warning, and subsequent offenders will be issued a $25 civil fine.

There will be no more than 20 designated smoking areas along the beach during the summer season at least 40 feet from the dune entrances. The designated smoking areas will be marked by a sign and, include a cigarette disposal container, or an ash urn. Smoking would be allowed in a semi-circle within a 12-foot radius of the sign. Starting on Oct. 1 to April 30, the number of designated smoking areas along the beach will drop down to four. The summer operation will go back into effect starting May 1.

Rehoboth Commissioner Stan Mills explained, following in the footsteps of Bethany, in 2011 Rehoboth implemented a smoking ban from six of their public parks. Prior to Rehoboth’s decision, Bethany had implemented a year-round smoking ban at their playgrounds, parks, and bandstand. In addition, the City of Lewes had implemented a smoking ban at their parks.

“We also looked at the beach and Boardwalk at that time since but the ban on the beach and Boardwalk were kind of newish in this area, there was hesitation, so we pulled that out at the time to wait and study other jurisdictions a little further,” Mills said.

The matter returned before the commission early this year when a citizen presented a petition that had received thousands of both hand-written and online signatures to ban smoking on the beach and Boardwalk.

The commission took a look at what actions have been made since the original discussion in 2011, such as Bethany had gone back to revise their ordinance to ban smoking on the Boardwalk and year-round and established designated smoking areas on the beach during the summer.

The Town of Fenwick Island and swimming beaches at Delaware state parks had implemented they’re own smoking ban on the beach.

“With all of that information out there we decided as a Board of Commissioners that it was time to do it,” Mills said. “We were following a national trend, and all of the rationale that we had used to implement the first smoking ban in 2011 was still applicable.”

Mills provided a list of rationale, such as providing smoke-free areas reduces litter from discarded cigarettes, reduced the toxins from discarded cigarettes, reduces the environmental impacts from the toxins, prevents children from ingesting discarded butts found while playing, less labor to pick up the litter, lessen the chance of a fire on the Boardwalk or near wooded areas, reduces the impact directly to the smoker and second-hand smokers, and even for children whose lungs are still developing and breathe at a faster rate than adults.

“With all of the rationale that still applied, the timing seemed right, and there was a lot more receptivity from the community, even within the smoking community,” Mills said. “The commissioners decided to do it on a year-round basis because littering is a problem year-round, as is smoking is a problem year-round even if there is less density in the area during the off season.”

The commission decided enforcement would fall solely on Rehoboth’s police department, as they did not want the lifeguards distracted from keeping their eyes on swimmers. Signage will also direct patrons to call the police department to report a violation.

“We are following the model of pretty much every entity we have talked to that has implemented smoking bans, and everyone has said education is key for voluntary compliance,” Mills said. “Based on other jurisdictions we don’t anticipate any problems. It is also based on our own experience. We have had three years’ experience with a smoking ban in our parks and have yet to have any problem.”

Mills acknowledged the commission investigated several options for designated smoking areas, such as in N.J. there are beaches that allow smoking a certain footage from the ocean’s edge but Delaware beaches are found to be narrower and the commission felt that option wasn’t applicable. Another option was to give a linear space along the dune versus a radius.

“By providing too big of an area, you promote smoking where people would set up their beach blanket in the designated area and chain smoke, where if you provide a smaller area people will set up normally, and then when they smoke they go up, stand in the area because it is so small, and return to their blanket,” said Mills. “That is a good thing in that it prevents large crowds and clouds of smoke gathering that could bother people nearby.”

Mills advised the Ocean City Mayor and City Council the question will arise if a smoking ban on the beach will affect tourism, but through the research conducted by himself, the Rehoboth Beach Chamber of Commerce and others, there has been no evidence found that tourism will be negatively affected.  In fact, reports show sales taxes have increased in areas with smoking bans.

“Based on our experience,” he said. “We have received very little resistance. Even the smokers indicated they saw it coming because it is national trend. However, they were interested in having some type of designated area where they could go and light up.”

The Town of Fenwick Island’s code states smoking is prohibited in town parks and the beach. A first violation of this section will result in a written warning. Subsequent violations shall result in the imposition of fine of $100 plus court costs for each and every offense.

The Fenwick Island Town Council was approached by the Environmental Committee during the winter of 2013 to consider a tobacco-free beach in Fenwick. The council deliberated and passed an ordinance banning smoking on the beach and Town parks, which went into effect last summer.

According to Town Manager Merritt Burke, the council didn’t meet resistance and in the one summer since the law was implemented there were no citations written, as well as there has been no problems involved.

“The ordinance was passed mostly from a pollution standpoint in reducing the amount of tobacco products on the beach,” Burke said. “That stemmed from the beach clean-ups, and with Bethany having already passed it, they thought it would be a good idea to follow suit. The other point was second-hand smoke and the issues surrounding smoking on the beach.”

Fenwick Island does not have a boardwalk and entrance to the beach is from street access points, so the council felt designated smoking areas on the beach was not necessary. However, the town also received an American Lung Association grant to purchase ash urns to place at all beach access points to encourage cigarettes being disposed of prior to entering the beach.

“We are continuing our outreach efforts with a second grant to inform and educate the public about the ordinance,” Burke said.

The Environmental Committee stages a table at the town’s movie on the beach event, Fenwick Flicks, to answer questions on the ordinance or on the environment in general.

“We have taken an educational approach to the ordinance,” Burke said.

Last year the Environmental Committee collected and counted the number of cigarette butts in the ash urns. There was a total of 1,364 butts collected.

“That is 1,364 tobacco products less on the beach and in the streets,” Burke said.

The Town of Bethany Beach’s code states, smoking shall be prohibited at all times of the year at all children’s playgrounds and Town public parks, the entirety of the Bethany Beach “Bandstand Plaza” and the entire width and length of the Boardwalk. The playgrounds, parks and bandstand were passed in 2008. The smoking ban on the entire boardwalk year-round and the beach during the summer were later added in 2011.

From May 15 to September 15 the entire width and length of the public beach and swimming area is smoke-free, except for specific “smoking permitted” areas.

The ordinance furthers, there are no more than 15 designated smoking areas on the beach. Each designated smoking area shall be locatedon the east side of the dune fence, and consist of a twelve-foot radius. The area is clearly marked by appropriate signage and provided with a cigarette/cigar butt disposal container and a trash can. No designated smoking area shall be located any nearer than 100 feet from any entranceway or path to the beach.

Any person observed in violation shall be issued a written warning for a first offense by any Town Police Officer or Code Official. A second offense is issued a summons to appear before the Town Alderman, and a third offense may be immediately taken into custody to appear before the Town Alderman to answer for the violation. Civil fines can be issued up to $500.