UPDATE: Comfort Station Changes Aim At Reducing Loitering Approved

UPDATE: Comfort Station Changes Aim At Reducing Loitering Approved

OCEAN CITY — One day after a favorable recommendation from a police subcommittee for physical changes to the Caroline Street comfort station area, the Mayor and Council on Tuesday approved the estimated $17,000-plus expenditure.

On Monday, the Ocean City Police Commission recommended a handful of changes targeting loitering around the Caroline Street comfort station, an area known to attract a small homeless population in recent years. City Engineer Terry McGean told the commission homeless individuals congregating at or near the comfort station utilize the facility’s benches, bathrooms and shelter on a daily basis.

“The three Cs of what causes it (loitering) are convenience, comfort and concealment,” he said.

McGean suggested several approaches to prevent loitering at the Caroline Street comfort station ahead of the summer season.

The proposed changes to the comfort station include adding arm rests to the center of nearby benches, adding curbs and river rocks to stationary concrete benches located under the north- and south-end overhangs, additional lighting and the installation of barricades and locked gates for the stage area.

While those immediate changes were unanimously approved and recommended by the commission, Councilman Wayne Hartman called for more long-term solutions.

“We’re dealing with symptoms all the time and never the cure,” he said.

Worcester County Interim State’s Attorney William McDermott agreed and suggested the commission first take steps to ban sleeping on the Boardwalk.

“My strong suspicion is you guys may cure what ails you at Caroline, but you are going to drive them to another comfort station,” he said. “Then you guys will be having this same conversation in a week.”

Hartman made a motion to have legal counsel draft an ordinance banning sleeping on all municipal property, a motion the commission approved unanimously. Hartman also made a motion to consult with legal counsel about leasing areas of the Boardwalk where picnic tables are currently located.

Mayor Rick Meehan said businesses currently sign an agreement with the town to let the public use the picnic tables. Hartman argued, however, that privatizing the street ends would prevent homeless individuals from loitering at the tables.

“I’m looking for permanent solutions to the problem,” he said.

The commission voted 3-1, with Meehan opposed, to consult legal counsel on the proposal to lease and essentially privatize the picnic table areas at the street ends on Caroline Street.

“It’s worth the discussion,” Council Secretary Mary Knight said.

The commission on Monday also heard of plans to potentially reroute the Boardwalk tram to the east side of the Caroline Street comfort station. McGean said such changes would increase pedestrian traffic and prevent loitering, but would require a change in state law and significant funding.

“You would have to change state law because it would be beyond the limits of where I can extend the Boardwalk right now,” he said, “And it would be very costly.”

The police commission’s immediate recommendations were forwarded to the Mayor and Council at a work session on Tuesday, and McGean again outlined some of the proposals. He pointed to convenience, comfort and concealment as the motivating factors for homeless individuals to congregate at and near the comfort station.

From a comfort standpoint, McGean said the Caroline Street area was attractive to many in the resort’s homeless community because of the proximity of restrooms and benches shaded from the sun and from the often-harsh ocean breezes. From a concealment standpoint, the comfort station provided areas out of sight and mind for some of the illicit behavior.

McGean also suggested the town explore an ordinance change to prohibit sleeping on the Boardwalk, parks and all city property including bus stops and bus stations, which have been attracting homeless individuals with increasing frequency in recent months.

Hartman made a motion to approve the roughly $17,000 expenditure to affect short-time physical changes to the comfort station including adding arm rests to the existing benches, enhancing the lighting in and around the facility, removing some of the existing benches at Caroline Street and adding barricades and gates at the stage area except when concerts and events are being held.

In terms of the arm rests, McGean said they could be added easily and should curtail some of the sleeping on the Boardwalk issues. In terms of the permanent concrete benches under the overhangs on the comfort station building, McGean said rocks and other architectural features could be added to prevent lying on them and even sitting on them.

“On the Boardwalk itself, adding the center arms would prevent people from lying down on them,” he said. “As for the four benches at the head of Caroline Street, we can remove them, but they are dedicated and we would have to relocate them.”

As far as the Caroline Street stage, McGean said safety features could be added to prevent loitering in the out-of-sight areas.

“We can put lockable gates on the stage areas along with other barricades,” he said. “We can also put up no trespassing signs to keep people out of those little nooks. We want to make it clear the stage is off limits.”

In terms of the enhanced lighting, McGean said there was certainly room for improvement.

“We can replace the lighting with much brighter lights,” he said. “It would have more than twice the brightness. There is very little lighting on the east side, and we need to light up those hidden spaces.”

There was also renewed discussion about leasing the picnic table areas near Caroline Street to adjacent businesses, essentially privatizing those areas and allowing the businesses to monitor and secure them. However, that concept did not get much traction at least initially, although town officials agreed to revisit the issue.

In the end, the council approved the estimated $17,258 expenditure for the physical changes to the Caroline Street comfort station area. Also approved was a motion to remove the four public benches at the end of Caroline Street and relocate the dedicated benches to a different area. The council also approved a motion to have legal staff begin crafting an ordinance prohibiting sleeping on the Boardwalk and its benches, parks, bus stops, bus stations and other city property.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.