OCEAN CITY – In a bit of an about-face, resort officials this week did not vote to increase the fee for a beach bonfire after approving the proposed change at budget wrap-up earlier this month.
During budget deliberations, the Mayor and Council considered increasing the permit fee for a beach bonfire from the existing $75 to $85. The number of nightly beach bonfires has soared in recent years, largely because of COVID restrictions on gatherings and indoor activities. As a result, the cost of monitoring the program and cleaning the beach has gone up in kind.
During a budget wrap-up session earlier this month, a divided council voted 4-3 to hike the beach bonfire fee from $75 to $85, a measure that would have to be completed by resolution. On Monday, that resolution was presented, and Councilman John Gehrig made a motion to approve it.
However, Gehrig’s motion to approve the resolution died for lack of a second among the five sitting councilmembers with Councilmen Lloyd Martin and Mark Paddack not present. Absent a second, Gehrig’s motion died and, as a result, the bonfire permit fee will remain at the existing $75.
In addition, the motion as presented would have eliminated language in the beach bonfire permit ordinance that called for a non-refundable deposit from beach bonfire permit holders if they did not clean up appropriately after their fire. However, during budget deliberations, Ocean City Fire Marshal Josh Bunting pointed out the deposit was a moot issue because his department did not have a mechanism to collect it after going to the online permit booking system a few years back. Again, the motion to approve the resolution as presented died for a lack of second, so that language about the security deposit will presumably remain in the existing ordinance.
While four of the sitting councilmembers on Monday did not second Gehrig’s motion, the resolution did have support from a different, albeit it non-voting source. Mayor Rick Meehan said he still supported the modest hike in the bonfire permit fee.
“I just want to go back and let it be known for the record I support the resolution that would have increased the fees for bonfires from $75 to $85,” he said. “I think you’re going to see an increasing number of bonfires and the cost associated with those and making sure we address any issues as a result of those bonfires.”
Meehan said he believed the bonfire fee even at $85 represented a good bargain for participants, considering the increased costs of monitoring and cleaning up after the program.
“I still believe it’s a very good deal for people to be able to go out and spend an evening and do something like this on a public beach,” he said. “That revenue is in the budget that was just passed is it not?”
The beach bonfire program began in the 1970s and has steadily gained popularity over the years. From a low of just 68 beach bonfire permits in 2010, the number grew to 251 in 2016. In 2017, the Fire Marshal’s Office explored the possibility of replacing the cumbersome paper application process with an online version and it was fully implemented in 2019. Residents and visitors could, practically in real time, apply for and gain a bonfire permit from their phone, computer or mobile device without making the trip downtown to City Hall to get a permit.
In the first year of implementation of the new system, the number of bonfire permits jumped to 479 in 2018 and 727 in 2019. When COVID broke out in 2020, the number of beach bonfire permits increased exponentially to 2,400. The pandemic was the driving force behind the one-year leap in bonfire permits issued. With restaurants closed or operating a limited capacity, movie theaters closed for much of the year along with limitations on other amusements and concerns about an overcrowded Boardwalk, for example, many residents and visitors opted to enjoy the beach at night with family and friends around a beach bonfire.
Now that the pandemic has waned and there has been some sense of a return to normalcy, the beach bonfire program has continued to grow. Many who discovered the program during the pandemic have grown accustomed to the program and continue to enjoy the bonfire program, especially with the streamlined permit process.
There were over 3,000 permits issued in 2021. The revenue from the beach bonfire permits was $192,000 last year, and the estimate for the fiscal year 2023 budget is a conservative $195,000. That budget estimate was based on the proposed permit fee increase from $75 to $85. With no action taken on Monday on the resolution that would have affected that change, those revenue projections might need to be adjusted at some point, but the working belief is an anticipated increase in the number of permits issued in the coming year will offset the difference in the permit fee.