OCEAN CITY — A group of Boardwalk business owners and concerned citizens asked the Mayor and Council this week to intercede on their behalf over the impacts of spray paint fumes on the Boardwalk, but no immediate action was taken.
During the public comment period of Monday’s regular meeting, concerns were raised over certain street performers who produce live spray paint art, the fumes from which waft into their stores and restaurants and impact their employees and guests. A couple of Boardwalk buskers produce spray painted art at various locations on the Boardwalk and the live performances often cause noxious fumes to waft into various stores and eateries in the immediate vicinity.
For the town, addressing street performer issues has been a slippery slope. On at least four different occasions Ocean City’s ordinances regarding Boardwalk street performers have been tested in court and each time federal judges have largely sided with the buskers on First Amendment grounds.
However, the handful of speakers at Monday’s meeting asserted the spray paint performances have gone beyond freedom of speech and expression issues and First Amendment protections and have crossed over to public health concerns. Local resident Tres Denk said the fumes associated with spray paint art on the Boardwalk was creating a potential health hazard for business employees and their guests.
“As a concerned citizen of Worcester County and a father of a Boardwalk employee, I would like the council to take immediate action against spray painting in public,” he said. “I believe this is dangerous to the health of the town and its guests and citizens. It ruins the atmosphere on the Boardwalk where we want to promote a healthy lifestyle.”
As an artist himself in the tattoo industry, Denk appreciated the freedom of expression protections, but said the spray paint performers, particularly the one who sets up shop at 1st Street, was creating a health hazard. He suggested the artists’ finished products could be displayed on the Boardwalk and the art form itself, the actual creation of the paintings, could be shown through other media forms such as videos, for example.
“As an artist, I respect the desires of the persons who want to perform this art,” he said. “I’d like to recommend spray paint artists only display the finished artwork and not finish them in public. I realize the process of creating the artwork is the allure, but the artists could show the process through multi-media platforms rather than a live performance.”
Denk pointed out the artists themselves often wear protection when creating the paintings as evidence of the potential dangers.
“Seeing the artists wear respirators is enough evidence that this is dangerous,” he said. “Please use every available resource to stop this process immediately.”
Flashback Old Time Photos owner Terry Poloney said the fumes that drift into her business from the spray paint artist across the Boardwalk was creating health issues for herself and her employees.
“It comes right into the store,” she said. “My employees complain of headaches and it gets to be overwhelming on certain nights. I feel I should be able to come to work and breathe clean air without having to breathe spray paint.”
Poloney said while Boardwalk patrons have the opportunity to walk by the spray paint artists quickly and avoid the fumes, she does not have that option.
“I don’t have the option to go home,” she said. “This is my livelihood. I have a concern about my health and the health of the employees that work with me and our customers.”
Another Boardwalk business owner, Jasmine Yilmaz, who owns and operates the Golden Plate restaurant at 1st Street, said she had no personal issues with the primary spray paint artist Mark Chase, who has, on at least two occasions, beat the town in separate lawsuits regarding busker issues, but that the spray painting across the Boardwalk was causing issues for her business.
“I have nothing against him,” she said. “I like him and he is a good person, but the smell is terrible. I have asthma and have to use an inhaler all of the time. I have customers that complain about the smell.”
Yilmaz urged the town to find some solution to the spray painting issue.
“They are not our enemies,” she said. “We are all working hard to try to make it in the summer, but we have to do something. We can be a big family and work this out and do something.”
Another Boardwalk business owner, Mike Cantine, said he did not come to the meeting to speak on the spray painting issue specifically, but felt the need to support his neighbors on the Boardwalk.
“The northeast winds, which are common here, suck right down 1st Street,” he said. “It’s bad for them. It’s nothing personal and I support artists, but with where they are, it’s not a good thing.”
When it was his turn to speak, Chase particularly mentioned Yilmaz and his apparent relationship with the business owner. Chase said he was willing to work on a solution, but wasn’t aware of the problem until Monday night’s meeting.
“Mama, I love her to death and she loves when I call her mama,” he said. “We have a working relationship. She knows if she ever has an issue, she can come to me. We found out today she has asthma. If she told me, we could figure out a way to rectify this. Until we are actually told things as street performers, we cannot resolve them. What we want as street performers is for the store owners to talk to us. They don’t need to come to you. They can talk to us and we can resolve things. We are human beings.”
As for the fume issues, Chase said he and others are compliant with all regulations and the concerns over the spray paint fumes were somewhat overstated.
“We follow all of the OSHA laws and we follow all of the EPA laws,” he said. “A lot of this is fear-mongering over spray paint. Outside the little bubble we work in, it only goes about three feet and even that is minimal and disperses quickly. Our overspray is minimal and contained in a very small area.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he walks the Boardwalk often and knows first-hand about the issues related to spray paint art.
“I know how annoying that smell is on the Boardwalk and it is annoying,” he said. “It might not be harmful, but it is annoying. It’s really hard to taste the food and get true pleasure from the food if you are smelling paint fumes. If you spend a lot of time in the store as most of you do, maybe it isn’t harmful, but it certainly is annoying.”
Meehan somewhat acknowledged the town’s hands were tied somewhat because of the various court rulings in favor of the buskers.
“The Mayor and Council has addressed some of our concerns with street performers as you know in the courts,” he said. “There are some things where the courts have ruled where we don’t have jurisdiction.”
Meehan instructed City Clerk Diana Chavis to let the public know what calls had been made and what steps had been taken with outside agencies on the spray paint issue. Chavis explained she had contacted the county health department and the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the Maryland Department of the Environment and each said they did not have jurisdiction or permits could not be issued and enforced because the street performers in general, and the spray paint artists in particular, are mobile.
“They are mobile, but they are at these locations consistently, several times a week, sometimes for five or six hours,” she said. “The fumes have become a nuisance on a regular basis, but we are attempting to be proactive and look into these issues.”
Meehan said he had Chavis contact the outside agencies to show the concerned citizens in good faith an effort was being made to rectify the issue.
“I don’t want you to think we’re ignoring this because we feel your pain and I share some of those concerns,” he said. “I really think there is so much we can do, but I think that you as merchants and as the public have the right to take action if this is affecting your businesses.”
Councilman John Gehrig then tried a more direct approach to resolving the conflict.
“I think we can get this resolved right now and we’re going to do it right here,” he said to Chase. “The first thing out of your mouth was ‘I love mama.’ If you love someone, you should want to help them right?”
Gehrig asked Chase how other issues with the spray paint art form were resolved in different areas on the Boardwalk. Chase explained he had been further up the Boardwalk and out of courtesy to the other merchants who offered similar display art, agreed to move to a different location. Gehrig asked if a solution couldn’t be worked out for the business owners in attendance on Monday.
“Is that a reasonable solution for somebody you love?” he asked. “Are you willing to do that for these folks? What can you do to help Jasmine, and I only single her out because there appears to be an affection there? Can you make a commitment to her tonight to address some of these issues?
After more back and forth between Gehrig and Chase, City Attorney Heather Stansbury cautioned the dialogue had perhaps crossed out of the forum of the public comment period.
“I want to caution the council about continuing a dialogue in this forum,” she said. “While this dialogue may be productive, I want to caution it could set a precedent for other issues that come up in the future.”
However, Gehrig characterized that as bureaucracy and protocol and continued to seek an immediate solution.
“That’s just government,” he said. “We have people here who have a problem and we have the one guy here who can solve the problem.”
Council President Lloyd Martin attempted to bring the whole issue back around to a resolution.
“The takeaway for tonight is we’ve identified the problem and please find a way to make it better,” he said. “Please meet with them tomorrow and try to get something done.”
Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) was also in the audience and addressed the council on the issue.
“I have been contacted by some constituents specifically about the spray painting,” she said. “I am hear tonight wearing two hats as the delegate representing these folks, but as you might also know I’m a story-teller on the Boardwalk. I take groups of families on the Boardwalk and some of my guests, particularly those with small children, have been impacted by this. I make it a point to actually change my routine so that they would not be impacted by the spray painting.”
In terms of her role as a delegate, Carozza said she had already taken some steps to resolve the issue.
“I appreciate that Mr. Chase is willing to work with these folks,” she said. “After this issue came up, I took it upon myself to have the health department send a representative to this meeting and he is here tonight. I’m also going to reach out to the appropriate state agencies to take a closer look at this and see if there is some regulatory solution.”