BELMAR, NJ — When heading to the Belmar beach next summer, make sure to leave the tent or canopy at home.
The borough council on September 5 approved a measure that prohibits tents, canopies or any shade-producing devices measuring more than 36 inches in height, width or depth on their beaches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Most beach umbrellas and small sun shelters measuring under the prohibited size are permitted throughout the year, according to the ordinance approved in a 3-2 vote.
Calls for the tent ban have been mounting as Belmar began to experience an increasing number of large tents or canopies rising along the water’s edge on any beach day — some being set up two to three across, creating large covered compounds where beachgoers can be seen inside cooking on electric stoves, watching television or changing clothes.
Before “beach-spreading” became a major safety issue along the borough’s beachfront, the governing body in August introduced the measure to prohibit the practice, triggering a flurry of mainstream and social media attention from those on both sides of the issue.
In contrast, no comments were made during the public hearing before the adoption of the new regulation, except for those by Mayor Matthew Doherty and council members who were split on the measure.
There was discussion over whether the measure should include exceptions for various reasons with Councilwoman Jennifer Nicolay, who voted against the measure, saying she wanted to see compromises made before the ban was adopted.
“Safety is my top priority. As a mother of two young children, I’ve moved my beach chair many times because of a tent,” she said, referring to those times when the structures blocked her line of sight to the water’s edge when her children were in the surf.
However, she didn’t want the ban to infringe upon those individuals who may need a shade-producing device because of a medical condition. “I’m not for tents, but I don’t want to tell certain people they can’t go to the beach (because of the restriction),” said Nicolay, who proposed to limit tents to possibly the back of the beach near the boardwalk or to a certain area.
Doherty said those types of restrictions could create a “whack-a-mole” situation because permitting tents and canopies in a certain area would affected another group of beachgoers or beachfront operation or activity. He cited as examples the beach volleyball courts along the boardwalk and the area near the Belmar Fishing Club at 100 Ocean Avenue, where the back beach would be wide enough to accommodate tents.
“If people just had common sense and courtesy, we wouldn’t need to address this,” the mayor said, adding he preferred the “cleaner” measure to ban all large tents and canopies, rather than allowing conditions. “If you give people a small window to exploit it, unfortunately they will.”
Doherty pointed to a recent example when a large tent was put up during the showing of a beachfront movie — a photo of which he posted on Twitter with the comment, "Tent set up in the middle of a crowd watching a moving on the beach in Belmar last night. C'mon man!"
In those circumstances when larger-sized tents or canopies are needed by beachgoers because of a medical condition or for any other reasonable request, Doherty and Councilmen Thomas Brennan and Mark Walsifer agreed that the police would have the discretion of making allowances in enforcing the ban.
While Doherty, Brennan and Walsifer voted in favor of the measure, Council President Brian Magovern cast the other dissenting vote — not because he was in favor of allowing tents, but because he didn’t want canopies to be prohibited. “An 8-by-8-foot canopy, with just the top, is similar to a big umbrella. It’s when you put walls on it, there is a problem.”
Belmar joins neighbor Avon-by-the-Sea and nearby Point Pleasant Beach in banning large tents and canopies.
While beach-spreading has not reportedly caused any mishaps in Belmar, the practice can pose a safety risk for several reasons, according to officials. Because the poles on large canopies cannot be properly secured in sand, the structures can easily go airborne on windy days, injuring individuals in their paths. And depending where they are set up, large tents can hinder a lifeguard’s direct line of sight and access to the water.