Ocean City boardwalk will remain all-wood

Slip on your flip-flops and rejoice, beachgoers. Ocean City will stick with its iconic wooden boardwalk when it launches a two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation project later this year.

The resort's town council voted 5-2 Monday to rebuild the deteriorating boardwalk with an all-wood deck. They rejected two proposals to add a concrete center lane for trams as far north as the 27th Street terminus.

But in a concession to the heavy trams, fire trucks and other vehicles that shortened the life of the existing wood deck and pilings, the reconstructed boardwalk will have a concrete substructure, said City Engineer Terry McGean.

"I certainly understand the tradition and the aesthetics of an all-wood boardwalk, and I'm happy to work under that guidance," McGean said. "My job was to say, 'Here are some other things you might want to consider.'"

Councilwoman Mary Knight said she voted with the majority to preserve something vital to the experience that draws vacationers back to Ocean City.

"On the practical side," she said, while the all-wood option was the most costly, "when you look at the money difference over the next 50 years it's only $24,000 a year to have wood versus the cement. That is so worth it in my mind, for the nostalgia, for the feeling of the boardwalk, for being one of the few all-wood boardwalks in the United States."

Town spokeswoman Donna Abbott said the all-wood option was also endorsed at Monday's council meeting by representatives of the resort's business community, including the Boardwalk Development Association, and the Ocean City Development Corp.

Council members Joseph Hall and Brent Ashley nevertheless voted against the selection, siding instead with constituents who preferred the lower-cost concrete options. The projected cost of the all-wood design is $6.6 million, with a 50-year maintenance tab of $16.7 million. The cheapest option was priced at $5.6 million, with a life cycle cost of $14.6 million.

"To me, things are tight," Ashley said. "And if you spend that much more on the boardwalk, you're putting off some other capital improvement project. I couldn't justify the extra expense."

Ashley said that the council also voted Monday to approve a new salary structure that will cut salaries for the town's new hires by 8 percent at the top of the scale, and by smaller amounts at the bottom.

At Monday's meeting, the audience was filled with all-wood partisans, he said. "Most of my emails and conversations favored the cement, but there were no proponents in the audience."

Several boardwalk business owners also praised the council's decision.

"I'm very happy about the decision. The boardwalk is a piece of nostalgia that began many years ago — it's what people have come here for, for almost a century," said Todd Ferrante, owner of the Park Place Jewelers on the boardwalk.

Ferrante, who is also the president of the Ocean City Development Corp., said the wood helps to "to keep the same feel and charm" of when the boardwalk was built more than 100 years ago. "I grew up in Ocean City, on the boardwalk. I'm glad they decided to maintain it."

He said the problem with an all-concrete boardwalk is that it's more permanent — "you can't tear it down as easily," and "it's a nicer feel for a pedestrian walkway."

Jay Knerr, owner of the Kite Loft, whose kites can be seen billowing in the wind down the boardwalk, called the council's decision "very smart." He said "the boardwalk is the number one attraction — it's an integral part of Ocean City," adding "it's always been wood."

The council's decision should please most beach-goers, too, wherever they're from.

Slightly more than half of the 19,000 people responding to a poll on the town's website favored all-wood decking. Another 34 percent chose wood with a concrete center tram lane stamped and stained to look like wood. Only 15 percent favored a plain, concrete tram lane — the least costly option to build and maintain.

The votes came in from some 2,000 localities in 25 countries, some as unlikely as Belarus and Croatia.

The last time Ocean City's boardwalk was thoroughly reconstructed was in 1962, in the wake of damage from a March nor'easter. Major repairs were made after Hurricane Gloria ripped up the decking in 1985.

But McGean said beach replenishment and the construction of sand berms on the ocean side of the boardwalk have protected it from subsequent storms, and allowed it to age. Time, water and stress from heavy vehicles have done the rest.

Treated yellow pine pilings weren't replaced after Gloria and are now more than 50 years old, McGean said. Beams and stringers beneath the walking surface are also decades old, rotting, and no longer able to hold the fasteners that secured the decking.

The renovation work will replace the yellow pine pilings and supports with concrete. But "what's underneath is something people aren't going to see," said Abbott.

Work is scheduled to begin next fall, after the high tourist season ends. It's expected to be carried out in several post-season phases ending in 2013.

"For visitors to the beach this summer, it will be business as usual," she said.



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