People in Rehoboth Beach had mixed reactions Saturday to the city's new ban on tents and canopies on the beach. Scott Goss/The News Journal
The canvas compounds of tents and canopies Rehoboth Beach visitors are increasingly deploying along the surf soon will be illegal in Delaware's most popular resort town.
The Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance Friday banning those temporary structures from the beach — along with campfires and grills — starting in May.
The move is being hailed by some as long overdue, while others say it is the latest example of the town's hard line against the seasonal visitors that drive the resort's economy.
“We’re a tourist area, and we have to make everything as comfortable as possible for tourists to come here and spend their money,” said Jay Levy, manager of the Tidal Rave 5&10 store on the boardwalk. “Anything that interrupts that is spiteful, selfish and ridiculous.”
Kent Buckson, captain of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol, does not see it that way. He says the new law is needed to stem the tide of visitors who set up “tent cities” that obstruct the view of lifeguards and other visitors.
“We’ve seen people get in arguments over them. Some use them to illegally smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol on the beach and even set up toilets inside them,” he said. “And it’s a problem that’s been getting worse over the last couple of seasons.”
In the works for several months, the new ordinance falls in line with similar rules passed in resort towns like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and one under recent consideration by nearby Bethany Beach.
The vote in Rehoboth Beach was prompted by a series of complaints lodged by residents to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. No public opposition was presented at several of the public hearings leading up to the passing of the ordinance.
Melissa Williams, who manages and purchases swimsuits, souvenirs and beach gear for the Sunsations store on Rehoboth Avenue, said she was unaware of the proposal until a reporter asked for her opinion Saturday morning.
“I definitely don’t think tents and canopies over a certain size should be allowed,” she said. “But I think trying to enforce a law like that will be difficult.”
The new ordinance does not specifically define the kinds of tents and canopies barred from the beach, outside of describing them as “large and non-traditional shading devices.” Instead, it allows only 7-foot, 6-inch umbrellas or smaller with “a collapsible circular shade” no greater than 8 feet in diameter.
The new rules include exceptions that will allow beachgoers to use canopies designed for babies and small children that do not exceed 36 by 36 inches, along with canopies allowed by permit for special events and weddings. No fires or cooking surfaces of any kind will be allowed on the beach.
Those who violate the new ordinance, which takes effect May 15, could be slapped with a $25 ticket that increases to $50 if left unpaid for 15 days.
“I think this first summer is going to be all about education,” Buckson said. “We’ve asked the city to print up pamphlets that we can give to people who don’t comply telling them not to bring these items back on their next visit. There’s going to be an adjustment period for sure.”
Restrictions in Rehoboth
Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Toni Sharp said local residents support the ban, citing as an example a woman who called her just before Friday’s vote.
"She wanted us to do three things — pass it, pass it and pass it,” she said.
Others see the new rule as another attempt by the city to crack down on visitors in what they see as an escalation in the decades-old tension between Rehoboth Beach’s year-round residents and the thousands of tourists who fill its streets and businesses in the peak summer months.
Faye Jacobs, a full-time Rehoboth Beach resident since 1999 and the former executive director of Rehoboth Beach Main Street program, said she does not oppose the tent and grill ban.
But, she understands how some might see the measure as part of a larger trend of Rehoboth Beach elected officials “restricting things people like.”
“Rehoboth Beach is trying to be user-friendly only to the full-time residents,” she said. “They really don’t take into account what’s good for everyone about tourism, which is the lifeblood of our community.”
In 2014, for instance, the city banned smoking on the beach, the mile-long boardwalk and adjacent public areas.
A year later, the city took on Dogfish Head Brewery by initially refusing to allow the renovation and expansion sought by the company’s popular brewpub on Rehoboth Avenue, before later relenting.
Around the same time, Mayor Sam Cooper touched off a firestorm when he proposed that rental homes be barred from opening their pools to guests. The city ultimately created a licensing system for all pools that allows those permits to be yanked for violations of local noise and public disturbance laws.
Now Rehoboth Beach is weighing an ordinance to end commercial trash and recycling service, a move that would force nearly 100 businesses to contract with private haulers.
“I think every beach town has that push and pull between residents and tourists,” Jacobs said. “But I think Rehoboth needs to give more sensitivity to all segments of the community, including residents, visitors and businesspeople. Right now, that communication is lacking.”
Sharp said she believes the new ban on tents, canopies and open fires would impact only people who visit Rehoboth but do not contribute to the local economy.
"These are people who get off the bus, they bring tents and canopies and their own food and stay for the day," she said. "They don't really spend much money here; they come just to enjoy our beautiful beach."