Baltimore Sun

In need of a buffer zone

By the book: Since 1996, the National Park Service has been enforcing Maryland's law banning public nudity on Assateague. Occasionally, undercover rangers in bathing suits walk the north beach, look for offenders.
Assateague Island -- The paunchy middle-aged man casts a solitary shadow as he trudges up the deserted beach on the northern end of Assateague Island National Seashore.

Toting a beach chair and towel, the genial 50-year-old Baltimore native won't give his name or his occupation, but cheerfully acknowledges he'll shed his sports shirt, shorts and sneakers as soon as he finds a secluded spot away from prying eyes.

"It's a hike to get up here, all right, but it's great to get naked in the ocean," the man says. "It's all about the freedom, the lure of getting out there. It's fun; it's a lifestyle."

It's been five years since the National Park Service began enforcing Maryland's law banning public nudity -- long enough for determined swimmers and sunbathers who want to enjoy the beach in the buff to have settled into an uneasy peace with authorities.

Discreet nudists -- some members of organized clubs such as Chesapeake Jay Birds or the Delmarva Suncatchers -- are willing to hike 30 minutes or so along the remote, 6-mile strip of sand between Assateague State Park and the Ocean City inlet.

Internet sites maintained by groups such as the 70-year-old American Association for Nude Recreation post scenic photographs of and directions to the unofficial "clothing optional" beach two miles north of the state park boundary. They also offer tips on "nude beach etiquette" that encourage naturists to be discreet and cover up when approached by rangers or "textiles," as many nudists refer to clothed beachgoers.

"We have a pretty good relationship with the park service," says Turner V. Stokes, 73, a retired electrical engineer from Leesburg, Va., who for more than 15 years has acted as an intermediary between nudist groups and federal officials.

"We encourage people to be responsible, not to flaunt nudity around those who might be offended. ... Frankly, I don't think there are a lot of rangers interested in aggressive enforcement as long as people behave responsibly," Stokes said.

John C. Burns, the national park's chief ranger, says problems caused by nudists -- perhaps up to 40 scatted along the north beach on a busy summer weekend -- are negligible compared with the number of drug possession, public intoxication and disorderly conduct offenses his 12-member staff routinely handles every summer.

Still, Burns says, rangers have handed out more than 20 citations this summer, costing offenders $100 each. Occasionally, undercover rangers in bathing suits walk the north beach, looking for offenders. Rangers don't use binoculars, and nude sunbathers who quickly cover up usually are left alone.

"We are responsible for enforcing Maryland law within the park, but this has never been a major issue on our radar screen," Burns says. "Basic nudity is something we pay attention to, but we don't spend a lot of time up there, and we're not expending a lot of resources."

Workers at the 629-acre state park say they hear a few complaints each week from campers or beachgoers who have spotted naked people while shelling or strolling on the north beach.

Nude sunbathers used to frequent the southern end of the 39-mile barrier island, near Chincoteague, Va. The spot garnered national attention 17 years ago when a Playboy magazine article mentioned it.

Officials in Accomack County, Va., responded by passing an anti-nudity ordinance, with violations punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to 12 months in jail.

Several nudist groups spent more than $50,000 in a fruitless court fight aimed at overturning the nudity ban, says Stokes.

"We had a couple of years of a honeymoon with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [which oversees the Virginia section of Assateague]," said Stokes. "They even allowed us to put up a couple portable toilets. But there was just too much publicity."

Now, regulars at the northern beach are wary of upsetting the de facto truce they have with federal park rangers. Their etiquette guidelines emphasize that "sex or sexual behavior is no more acceptable here than at any other beach. Family and friends come here to relax, not to be harassed or shocked."

Before a 1996 agreement that granted the park service the power to enforce Maryland law within the boundaries of federally owned parks in the state, nudists were pretty much ignored, Burns said.

In other areas of the country without anti-nudity laws, federal authorities have tried to accommodate nudist groups by designating some beaches as "clothing optional" areas.

In New Jersey, for example, one section of the 26,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes scattered sites on both sides of New York's harbor, has been set aside as a nude beach. On busy weekends, more than 2,000 people crowd Gunnison Beach -- where swimmers are protected by clothed lifeguards.

"The park service tends to follow states, and New Jersey has always had very liberal laws on this," says Gateway spokesman Brian Feeney. "At Gunnison, nudity predates the park service. There were nudist colonies in New Jersey in the early part of the 20th century. It has that tradition."

Carolyn Hawkins, a 58-year-old Worcester County native who handles marketing and public relations for the 50,000-member American Association for Nude Recreation, says she treks out to Assateague whenever she visits family and friends in Ocean City.

"It may not ever be legal, but people always seem to have gone there," says Hawkins, who travels extensively, stopping at many of the association's 247 member clubs. "I prefer our clubs in some ways because you know you have your privacy. But no matter where you are, the idea is to shed your clothes and shed your stress."