Beach picnic ban was born with beach tags, but is no longer on the books

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photo by Bill Barlow / The sign says no picnics, but Ocean City has no problem with that bag of hoagies you wanted to take to the beach. Officials are also more lenient with ball playing than the sign indicates, but it sounds like you shouldn’t push it on alcohol or campfires. photo by Bill Barlow / The sign says no picnics, but Ocean City has no problem with that bag of hoagies you wanted to take to the beach. Officials are also more lenient with ball playing than the sign indicates, but it sounds like you shouldn’t push it on alcohol or campfires. OCEAN CITY – On street ends throughout Ocean City, a big yellow sign informs beachgoers about what’s not allowed. No skateboards on the boardwalk, no loud music or ball playing, no picnics.

Wait, really?

Families eat lunch on the beach all the time. Does anyone mind?

Apparently not.

Despite the signs, no current city ordinance prohibits picnicking on the city’s beaches, city clerk Linda MacIntyre said.

The picnicking ban dates back March 3, 1976, with an ordinance approved Mayor B. Thomas Waldman and Commissioner Luther L. Wallace, she said. Commissioner Chester J. Wimberg was listed as absent.

The broad-sweeping ordinance ushered in the era of beach tags. At the same time, the city established rules for the beach.

Beach tags sold for $3 per person before May 31 that year, and $5 per person after. Weekly tags were available for $1.50.

The ordinance rendered a number of activities unlawful during the bathing season, including the use of the beaches for picnicking.

“The word ‘picnicking’ as used herein means the carrying of or otherwise transporting any box, basket, bag, tub or other container or receptacle in which there is contained food or beverage, or both and/or the consumption of such food or beverages, or both,” the ordinance states.

But it seems as though no one enforced that rule for many years. Eventually, it was pulled from the ordinance entirely, more than 30 years after it was enacted.

The ordinance was amended by city council on Aug. 30, 2007. Signed into law by then-Mayor Sal Perillo, the prohibition of picnicking was removed, MacIntyre said.

“I researched all of the ordinances,” MacIntyre said. “The section prohibiting picnicking was removed. It’s no longer in the ordinance.”

Former Mayor Henry “Bud” Knight was elected as a city councilman in 1978 as the city changed from being governed by a commission form of government to a mayor/council form of government.

“That was a long time ago,” Knight said, but he did remember some of the details. The ordinance that brought beach tags to the island also put the kibosh on activities that some did not want to see on the beach.

Those of a certain age, he said, would remember enterprising young children hawking the Philadelphia Bulletin on the strand.

“Bulletin! Bulletin!” they would call out, armed with canvas bags over their shoulder, filled with newspapers.

“My kids were selling newspapers on the beach, and they got booted off,” Knight said. “One year you could do it and the next you couldn’t.”

The ordinance prohibits anyone to “hawk or peddle, sell or offer for sale, any article, goods, wares or merchandise on the public beaches except as covered by state statute.”

Knight said the 1976 ordinance was written with an iron fist to prohibit vendors from going on the beach and selling food.

“As I recall, that was becoming an issue, a problem,” he said. “So they established a lot of rules and regulations. That’s why you can only buy food at the street ends. They didn’t want the clutter on the beach.”

The ordinance also prohibits bathing in areas not protected by lifeguards, surf fishing in bathing areas, park vehicles, loiter, assemble band or crowd together on the beach or interfere with the ingress or egress of others and dogs.

The consumption of alcohol is prohibited as is changing clothes, dressing or undressing or otherwise disrobing, sleeping from sunset to sunrise, to act in a loud, indecent or otherwise offensive manner, to revel, disport or behave in a noisy and boisterous manner, inconvenience others or disrupt or disturb the public peace and dignity within the beach areas. 

Playing games, including throwing, batting or catching a football, baseball, basketball or softball is prohibited. 

The ordinance also bans damaging lifeguard equipment and littering.

Starting or maintaining a fire on the beach is prohibited at any time, and Ocean City Police Chief Chad Callahan said that provision remains and is strictly enforced.

“There are a lot of obscure ordinances that have been on the books for years, enacted long ago and have gone by the wayside,” he said.

Picnicking is not an issue and was not enforced long before it was removed from the ordinance in 2007, Callahan said.

“No one was going up and down the beach looking for picnicking,” he said.

The prohibition on ball playing has been relaxed.

“A large open flame will draw attention,” he said. The prohibition on alcohol remains in effect and is enforced, he said. 

The question was raised by a reader after a Gazette story about a new business, which delivers food to the beach in a bucket. The city shut the business down over a licensing issue, and there were questions about whether the practice was allowable under zoning rules.

The reader asked if signs at various street ends prohibit picnicking on the beach, how is it allowable for any business to deliver food to the beach?

While there may still be signs posted prohibiting many activities, including picnicking on the beach, Callahan said he hopes families enjoy a nice meal on the beach for generations to come.

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