OCEAN CITY — Despite some last-minute misgivings, the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Monday approved an ordinance allowing horseback riding on the beach on a limited basis in the offseason.
With a split vote of 4-3, the council approved horseback riding on the beach with an amendment to add a $20 one-day permit fee. The ordinance as written only allowed for a $50 seasonal pass to ride horses on the beach, but Councilman Joe Hall suggested the one-day pass as a means to encourage more riders to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I think we need to consider a one-time fee for those who would like to try it out without forking over the $50,” he said. “I think the $50 fee might be a barrier for those who want to do it once in a while.”
While the ordinance was ultimately passed with Hall’s amendment, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas had some misgivings about changing the ordinance before it was even implemented.
“I’d like to see it remain as it is,” she said. “Let’s try it for a year before we go amending it.”
Under the approved ordinance, horseback riding will be allowed on the beach only from 27th Street south to the South Jetty at the Inlet from Nov. 1 to March 30 from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Only leisurely activity will be allowed, including riding or walking the horses. The ordinance prohibits any competitions, such as polo matches or racing.
Those who obtain permits will be responsible for those in their party, and beginning or intermediate riders must be accompanied by an experienced rider capable of controlling the animals. The ordinance includes specific language about cleaning up after the horses including the handling of manure.
“The permittee is responsible for cleaning any manure, hay or other debris which is caused by the riding of horses upon said beach including any and all which may fall in the parking lot, entrance to the beach or on the beach,” the ordinance reads. “Any such manure, hay or other debris must be removed from the island and brought back to the stable or farm from which the horse came.”
The subject of manure has been a point of contention since the concept was first proposed and threatened to derail the idea of horseback riding on the beach.
Before a vote could be taken on Monday, Councilwoman Mary Knight presented a series of emails and other communications from groups like the Surfrider Foundation, which were adamantly opposed. Knight also presented information from a noted microbiologist about the potential dangers of manure on the beach.
“His concern is even though horse manure is biodegradable, it contains e coli,” she said. “All warm-blooded animals have e coli in their manure and it can cause ear infections, eye infections and bladder infections. If e coli is detected, the beaches must be closed.”
However, Joe Hall pointed out there is a potential for harmful bacteria in other areas of the resort already and the safety measures in the ordinance and their enforcement would prevent any problems.
“There is proper sanitation and proper safety measures to prevent the spread of germs,” said Hall. “Germs are everywhere. They’re in our restaurants and they are everywhere in our town, but we take precautions to prevent them from spreading. I’m ready to vote for this. I think it’s an exciting opportunity.”
Pillas pointed out the winter-only window for horseback riding on the beach would help prevent any potential spread of bacteria caused by manure.
“I like this because other resorts are offering this and we’re only offering it in the winter,” said Pillas. “In the cold weather, e coli and bacteria die very quickly and I don’t see a problem with trying it.”
Pillas said the level of interest could dictate any policy changes in the future.
“If 15 show up, that’s great,” she said. “If we start seeing 50, 100 or 200 showing up, then maybe we’ll need to revisit this.”
Nonetheless, there were those on the council that couldn’t support the measure largely because of the public safety issue.
“I’m going to vote against this,” said Councilman Lloyd Martin. “We have a pristine beach here and three miles away at Assateague is a beach made for horseback riding. I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense for us to consider this.”
For others, public perception alone was enough for a negative vote on the ordinance.
“It’s all about the perception of our pristine beach,” said Councilman Doug Cymek. “If someone sees a pile of horse manure, that’s the image people are going to take away with them.”
However, Councilman Brent Ashley said fears of manure contamination from a public safety or perception standpoint were unfounded.
“Using that same logic, maybe we should get rid of all of the seagulls and pigeons,” he said.
As Acting City Manager, Mayor Rick Meehan voiced concern about potential cleanup issues.
“Who cleans this up when the riders don’t?” he said. “When the calls come in, and they will, who do I call? That’s something we need to work out.”
Council President Jim Hall said there is ample precedent provided by other beach resorts and the benefits outweighed the potential problems.
“They do this in fine resorts,” he said. “If there are four horses, 100 people might enjoy them trotting by or frolicking on the beach. These ideas are novel and sometimes they work.”