Ocean City is planning on installing a beach mat that extends to the water’s edge in a test run at 34th Street in the summer of 2019. By Maddy VitaleOcean City has made a priority of making streets, sidewalks, the bay and the Boardwalk accessible to those with disabilities or limited mobility. And the beaches, the crown jewel of the community, are no different, with mobility mats at most of the beaches to make it easier to get on and off the thick sand.In the latest project to improve access, the summer of 2019 will feature at least one path of mats that will extend to the tide line in a test area at the 34th Street beach. It will offer an amenity for some, and to others, it could provide the only way to easily access the beaches.“The city’s capital budget includes $40,000 annually over the next five years for the replacement and expansion of beach mats,” Ocean City Public Information Officer Doug Bergen said Wednesday. “The city now has hard-packed dune crossovers and beach mats at 54 different beaches, and each year the city adds more.”The mats, made of hard plastic, create a footpath for beach-goers but they stop short of the water’s edge. The extension would allow seniors and people who are disabled the same access as everyone else to enjoy the beaches.Bergen noted that, based on past purchases, each section of mat, which is about 50 feet long and 5 feet wide, costs about $2,500.It would be money that would be well spent, said Fourth Ward Councilman Bob Barr.Barr, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said the city’s plan for a test run of the beach mats is an excellent idea.“Any time that you can make the beach more accessible to disabled citizens, we should do it. We have one of the greatest beaches in the country, and we need to make sure everyone has access,” Barr emphasized. “We should try our best to have people enjoy what is our crown jewel.”Beachgoers and their umbrellas pack the sand next to the Ocean City Music Pier at Eighth Street over Fourth of July in 2018.Barr said he spoke with Mayor Jay Gillian and the City Administration about the notion of beach mats extending out. Everyone, he said, was receptive to the idea.“The mayor has always had a willing ear, and always brought me in when it came to all types of issues, but especially these issues. I bring a unique ability to know what it is like. It can be difficult,” Barr explained.He continued, “My wheelchair won’t work on the beach. Even the beach chairs are sometimes difficult for people to push. These mats will allow somebody to basically get all the way from the beginning of the beach to the water.”But he knows there are issues with the upkeep of the mats and some other potential obstacles to success.“You have to keep them clear,” Barr said of the sand. “But that shouldn’t stop us from making our beaches as accessible as they can be.”Joanna Diaz, of Boyertown, Pa., and her 7-year-old daughter, Lilly, walk on a mobility mat at the 34th Street beach in July.Bergen explained some of the challenges to the implementation of the mats. For one, the city would need a plan to remove and protect the mats in storms and extreme tides. They also would have to be kept free of the soft mounds of sand. That would require manpower performing daily beach-cleaning operations.Another issue is what to do when beach-goers reach the end of the path.“We’re discussing the need for a ‘landing area,’ so people in chairs have a place to sit and stay,” Bergen noted.The mats are part of improvements by Ocean City to give people greater access to the shoreline, including beach wheelchairs and hand railings.Bergen said the city has long had a free surf chair program that provides beach-accessible wheelchairs at no cost.Special beach wheelchairs, equipped with big rubber wheels, are available to the public at no cost as part of a city program.“These allow those with disabilities to get around on the soft sand, join their families on the beach and to get up to the water’s edge,” Bergen said.He said the city is adding Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps over bulkheads and off the Boardwalk. Ramps were included at all numbered street ends as part of the Boardwalk’s recent reconstruction.The 34th Street beach, as well as the 59th Street beach, include dune crossovers, longer sections of beach mats and handrails.Barr said he is pleased with the work of Gillian and the city to improve access to the beach for everyone. He is optimistic about the latest plan to extend the beach mats at 34th Street.“I applaud the city and administration for being open-minded and listening to not only me, but Councilman (Keith) Hartzell as well, who helped me on this issue,” Barr said. “Our goal, ultimately, is to have one extended beach mat in each of our four wards. We have to experiment and see how it goes.”Last summer, Brigantine installed beach mats to the shoreline at its 16th Street beach, making it possible for people in wheelchairs to get close to the ocean. Ocean City modeled the plan for 34th Street after Brigantine’s project.“A friend of mine spearheaded that in Brigantine,” Barr explained. “I said, ‘I’d like to do that,’ and the mayor agreed we should at least try it.”The extended mats could be utilized by all beach-goers. They would make it easier for families to lug chairs, umbrellas and other beach gear through the sand.“Many people would get use out of it. Making the beaches, Boardwalk and downtown more accessible is what we want,” Barr said. “People should be able to come down to Ocean City and enjoy their day. We need to accentuate all that we offer. The mats are just another example of us doing that.”For more information visit: http://www.ocnj.us/handicapped-accessibilityBeach mats, like this one at 34th Street, save people from the trouble of trudging through thick sand. The new one would go all the way to the tide line.