No single answer to improve beach access

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  The city is testing out mats like this PathMat and the Mobi-Mat, not shown, at St. James Place and other beach entrances to improve access for small children, the elderly and the disabled. The city is testing out mats like this PathMat and the Mobi-Mat, not shown, at St. James Place and other beach entrances to improve access for small children, the elderly and the disabled.

OCEAN CITY – Accessing the beach can be quite a challenge for those with kids struggling to carry chairs, towels, buckets and shovels across the sand for a fun-filled day.

For those with disabilities, the trek up and over the dunes is an even harder task, but city officials have attempted to make the task of enjoying the surf and sand a bit easier.

At St. James Place, by the north end entrance to the boardwalk, a green PathMat is now in use. Placed at the end of a 50-foot ribbon of concrete, the latex mat assists senior citizens, small children and those living with disabilities across the sand dunes.

Feedback throughout the summer has been very positive, said Mike Rossbach, the city’s director of public works.

“Overall, they’ve been widely accepted, people really like them,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of requests from people who have seen them, they’re asking us ‘can you do our street too?’”

The mats are flexible and long lasting, but unlike concrete, they are not permanent. While nailed down for stability, they can be easily moved, said Rossbach. The “honeycomb” mats are also totally non-slip in any weather, he said.

“It’s a demonstration mat, we’ve been trying to get a feel from people who live in town, from our visitors, to see what people think about them,” he said. “We have a couple of different products, and we’re looking into which one is the better product, the longest lasting. The jury is still out.”

St. James Place garnered a lot of attention over the busy summer months, he said.

“That’s by the boardwalk, a high exposure spot. We were hopeful that people would like the mat, and they have,” said Rossbach.

Over the past several years, public works crews have been on a mission to make beach access easier. At some street ends, the city has placed hard-packed gravel to help beach-goers. In other areas, they have built ramps to assist those in wheelchairs who can’t easily navigate a steep set of stairs. Each street end provides a different challenge, said Rossbach.

“We try to create and design something that will work in that particular area,” he said. “We have to look at the situation at each street end. In the offseason we are going to access each street end, and compile a list.”

Between 15th Street and 20th Street, the city built eight ramps over the past several years. Wheelchairs can go up one ramp onto the boardwalk and down another onto the beach.

At some street ends, there is no boardwalk to help beachgoers get over the bulkhead. When the bulkhead is very high, a set of stairs going up and down is no problem for most, but it creates a problem for those with limited mobility. Rossbach said his public works team is working hard to overcome every challenge.

Last September, St. James Place was the sight of a “Mobi-Mat” demonstration. The blue Mobi-Mat is similar to a path mat, said Rossbach. Hurricane Irene blew through town and the mats disappeared.

Rossbach said the city is considering mats in other areas to help people walk across the dune areas.

“It’s one more thing we could do to improve access,” he said. “They roll up, you put them down for the summer and then you can take them out. It really helps families with small children and people in wheelchairs.”

City business administrator Mike Dattilo said securing funding for beach replenishment has become an extremely competitive process. Enhancing beach access could give the city an edge in the process. 

A few years ago the NJDEP required strategically-placed bathrooms and 24-hour beach access, but after Avalon won a lawsuit, the edict was struck down. 

“Access remains an issue,” said Dattilo, adding that the city would like to begin to utilize the beach mats. “We're looking into grant money, we'd like to use them on all the beaches if possible.” 

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