OCEAN CITY — Hoping to capitalize on a spike in the popularity of bonfires on the beach, Ocean City officials this week approved a request that could automate and streamline the permitting process.
Ocean City Fire Marshal David Hartley on Tuesday presented a proposal to the Mayor and Council seeking approval to explore an online permitting operation for private bonfires on the beach in the resort. Hartley said the requests for private bonfires on the beach have sharply risen in recent years from just 67 in 2010 to 233 last year.
Under the current system, those seeking a permit to have a bonfire on the beach apply in person, often days in advance at the Fire Marshal’s Office, which carefully reviews the requested time, place and location, provides the strict rules to the applicant, ensures the fees are paid and makes sure other agencies that might be affected are notified. The cost of a beach bonfire permit is $75 and there are strict rules about putting them out and locating them far from structures.
The process is often a tedious one and requires those seeking to have a bonfire on the beach to plan days or even weeks in advance. In the interest of taking advantage of the spike in popularity while improving efficiency and reducing staff time dedicated to the permit process, Hartley on Tuesday was requesting permission to explore an automated, online bonfire permitting system whereby residents and visitors could acquire a permit from a computer or mobile device.
In his preliminary research, Hartley said the automated bonfire permit system would likely cost around $5,000, which would pay for itself through increased revenue from more beach fires approved.
“I think we will recover the costs of the web-based system quickly,” he said. “With the permit process easier, we anticipate there will be an even greater increase in the requests for bonfires. I’m asking you to allow my office to pursue a concept for the web-based program.”
Presumably, individuals sitting on the beach in the afternoon could decide to have a bonfire on the beach that night and go online to acquire the necessary permit. Hartley said there were similar web-based applications that could be mimicked.
“We’re looking for a web-based computer program,” he said. “You can already buy movie tickets, make tee times and all kinds of other things online and I don’t see any difference with this.”
Hartley said the same safeguards in place under the current system could be transferred to the web-based bonfire permit system. For example, a digital permit would be issued via email or text that would automatically control the date, time and location. The system would carefully explain the rules, collect the permit fee and automatically advise other agencies such as the Ocean City Police Department, the Beach Patrol and the Coast Guard, for example. The system could also provide a conduit for the Fire Marshal’s Office to cancel a permitted fire because of weather conditions.
Hartley said the number of permit requests has steadily increased over the last few years from a low of 67 in 2010 to over 233 last year.
“People really rave about it,” he said. “They think it’s a nice, value-added amenity. It really creates a lot of nice beach memories and it’s fairly inexpensive.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman asked just how simple it would be to acquire a bonfire permit once the system was up and running.
“Would there be any kind of built-in delay in time for someone getting a permit issued?” he said. “Let’s say a group decides they want to have a bonfire on the beach and a few clicks on their phone later they are off to 7-11 to buy firewood. Is it going to be that simple?”
Hartley said it was his intention to streamline the process while ensuring all of the same safeguards are intact.
“My hope is yes, it would be that simple,” he said. “I plan to control a lot of that on the back end and with the restrictions we can build in, we’ll be able to control the time and location, the hours of the day they are allowed and even the day of the week.”
Convinced the appropriate safeguards would be in place, the council voted unanimously to allow the Fire Marshal’s Office to explore the web-based automated permit approval system for beach bonfires.
“I think you would save money with this automated program,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight. “I think it will ultimately be a money maker in the long run.”
Hartley estimated the program could cost in the neighborhood of $5,000, which could be funded out of the Fire Marshal’s Office existing budget. Under current policy, departments have the authority to fund expenditures under $15,000 without Mayor and Council approval. Projects and programs that exceed $15,000 must be approved by the Mayor and Council, however. After considerable debate, the council gave Hartley its blessing to explore the automated beach bonfire permit system.