By Dan Moffett
It might be time for Ocean Ridge to think about adding a motto to the town seal.
How about “World Leader in Beach Access Opinions”?
Town commissioners heard plenty of them from residents during a lively 2½-hour workshop that ended with Mayor Geoffrey Pugh distilling an increasingly complicated and testy debate into a two-pronged approach for managing beachgoers.
“You do it through information and enforcement,” Pugh said after the May 6 special meeting. “We inform, and if you don’t play by the rules, then we enforce … Inform and enforce. Period. End of story.”
A unanimous commission agreed and instructed staff to start work on new signs that would show people the footprint of each public beach and lay out the ordinances governing behavior, with the fines for violating them.
Commissioners also decided to begin their budget process by considering the costs and benefits of adding another police officer to help patrol the beaches.
“What I’m hearing from a lot of people is they wouldn’t mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to hopefully discourage some of this behavior,” Commissioner James Bonfiglio said of adding an officer. “I think people understand that if you want to do something about this, it’s going to cost something.”
The commission set another special meeting at 4 p.m. on June 23 to continue work on the plan.
Residents came at the issue from all angles during the May workshop. One of the most well-received suggestions came from Rachel Walker, who lives along Old Ocean Boulevard. Her idea is to put maps showing the contours of each public beach area on signs by each of the public crossovers to give visitors a graphic representation of where they are allowed to go.
“All you have to do is put a sign up that has the exact configuration of what beach is public,” Walker said. “Is it a triangular shape down to the water? What kind of shape is it? Does it look like the state of Florida? Does it look like the state of Mississippi?”
Peter Burling of Osprey Drive came armed with a 13-page report that he and neighbors compiled to urge the commission to extend the beach debate beyond a few meetings. Burling said the town should consider hiring a “qualified planner” to study and report on how best to manage its most prized asset.
“It’s time to drop the ‘we/they, rich man/poor man’ accusatory argument that has been used effectively up to this point as a way to avoid important issues,” Burling said. “Now we will either plan an effective response to increased external population pressure and its impact on our beaches, or we will splinter as a community.”
Bob Merkel of Marlin Drive, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a defense attorney in Palm Beach County, warned the commission about the legal liabilities of restricting access. He jokingly told Town Attorney Ken Spillias he should support passing restrictions “cause you’ll be a rich man” from the billable hours the town will pile up defending lawsuits.
“Sometimes you can’t do anything,” Merkel said, “or you’re going to get sued.”
Former Commissioner Terry Brown charged the town with drifting toward restricting access.
“Slowly, Ocean Ridge has attempted to suppress the use of beaches,” Brown said and echoed Merkel’s concerns about legal consequences.
Christine Schulte of Osprey Court told commissioners about beachgoers who defecated in the sand dunes and left toilet paper behind. She said many people who come to the town’s small, unattended beaches do so to avoid “paying $10 to park” at Boynton Beach Oceanfront Park down the road.
Dan Spotts of Sailfish Lane criticized the town for allowing property owners to put up signs that were “designed to intimidate the public.” Spotts said “the leaning should always be to public access” in the decisions the town makes.
Commissioner Richard Lucibella, who has criticized police for not patrolling the beaches aggressively enough, said the access debate often is mistakenly cast as a battle between property owners and out-of-town visitors.
“I think there is a private property component to this,” Lucibella said, “but this isn’t about private property rights. And it shouldn’t be made so.”
He said when it comes to trespassing, “nobody has ever had this issue until the last two years. What does that tell you?”
Lucibella believes the recent growth in Boynton Beach and surrounding communities has brought more beach traffic to Ocean Ridge and will create more management problems unless the town comes up with an effective plan soon.
By Dan Moffett