Nothing gratifies 25-year-old Bryan Woolbert more than sharing his piano playing with visitors at the Jersey Shore.
Their happiness matters more to Woolbert, a resident of Egg Harbor Township who is legally blind, than the money they drop into his bucket.
Local business owners, however, don’t feel the same about the boardwalk performers and their complaints led Ocean City Council on Thursday to pass an ordinance on busking that could levy a $2,000 fine on violators.
Ocean City officials say the new rules will help secure the resort’s signature identity as a family-friendly destination. The buskers say their performances make the Jersey Shore more intriguing to tourists.
“I want to work together with everyone to help make the boardwalk as awesome of an experience as it is,” Woolbert said during Thursday morning’s packed city council meeting.
Busking is commonly associated with larger cities. Street entertainment has drawn controversy through the years and has been the subject of several court cases, including a 1985 federal court case where a group of buskers challenged limitations passed in Chicago.
The council heard from several performers who lamented the changes, which will be in place between May 1 and Oct. 31, the city’s peak tourism season.
Andrew Ehrhardt, a saxophone player from Egg Harbor Township, said he and his fellow buskers add value to the boardwalk, asking the council to consider their importance to the community before voting on the ordinance.
“I make little kids stop in their tracks, their eyes widen and minds wonder,” said Ehrhardt, 40. “I make the elderly remember songs, friends and times long forgotten.”
The new rule designates two entertainment zones on the boardwalk – one from Fifth through Eighth streets and the other between 12th and 14th streets, according to the ordinance. Doing so would move buskers away from the bulk of boardwalk businesses.
The ordinance raises the permit for boardwalk performers to $200, and restricts them to between 7 and 10 p.m. five days per week. They also allow police officers to dismiss a performer if a crowd the generate constantly impedes walking paths.
A city official will also designate a distinct area of the entertainment zone where each performer can set up their act.
The city has for years tried to regulate busking performers in a way that respects them but doesn’t harm the family atmosphere of Ocean City. Prior complaints from business owners led the council to adopt an ordinance in 2019 banning buskers from using amplifiers.
Councilman Jody Levchuk, a business owner, said he’s spoken with multiple merchants who have asked the city to intervene. Most of their concerns surround performers creating loud music that disrupts their business during the short summer season.
“To me, in a way it’s panhandling, and I don’t think that’s appropriate for our environment that we all love,” Levchuk said. “What we’re doing is really helping out the overall dynamic and atmosphere of the boardwalk.”
Levchuk, referring to Woolbert’s comments, added that the ordinance was formed partially because of performers who don’t add entertainment value to summer crowds.
“Not everybody sounds like the three tenors up there,” Levchuk said.
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