Home Seaside Heights & Seaside Park Government Seaside Heights, Now Marketing Itself to Families, Wary of N.J. Pot Legalization

Seaside Heights, Now Marketing Itself to Families, Wary of N.J. Pot Legalization

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The Seaside Heights beach and boardwalk. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
The Seaside Heights beach and boardwalk. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Seaside Heights officials have spent what now amounts to years trying to shed its image as a hard-partying town filled with as many opportunities for vice as grains of sand on the beach.

Now, with a new governor, Phil Murphy, having been elected who has made the legalization of recreational marijuana a top priority, those same officials are concerned about what the change in the law could mean for the town, which has made a concerted effort to drive out seedy motels and boardwalk businesses that have caused trouble. The troubled inns and boardwalk businesses selling t-shirts with profane writing have since begun to be replaced by upscale condominiums, brightly-lot boardwalk boutiques and family-friendly events all summer long. Could adding marijuana to the mix put a damper on the progress?

“We want to be a family resort, period,” said Mayor Anthony Vaz, who has spearheaded the revitalization effort. “We recognize there are laws we have to obey, but we will not be excited about it.”

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As it currently stands, smoking is banned on the borough’s beach and boardwalk. Marijuana legalization is not likely to infringe on the state’s Smoke Free Air Act, and even New Jersey’s medical marijuana law allows towns to restrict its use in parks, beaches and boardwalk areas.

The question, then, may come down to zoning. Would a marijuana dispensary be able to open up on the boardwalk or a few blocks away, and is there a risk the town could become a resort for out-of-state residents looking to get high at the beach? It’s a question officials say they have yet to formally discuss, however they are aware they’ll need to do so down the road.

“If this goes into law, there will have to be some controls,” said Vaz, who will bring the issue to the attention of the borough council if and when a legalization measure goes in effect.

Vaz said he sees many problems in Colorado, where recreational pot has been legal since Jan. 2014. Some studies have pointed to an uptick in impaired driving, though there is no marijuana intoxication test as accurate as a Breathalyzer, and advocates of legalization say a positive test on a driver could mean the person smoked weeks, or even months, earlier.

A 2014 study by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that Seaside Heights had a per-capita marijuana arrest rate of 1,188 per 100,000 equivalent residents, though the figures are likely skewed by the summer tourism influx. In nearby Seaside Park, the borough’s arrest rate led the entire state of New Jersey, with 5,028 arrests per 100,000 residents. The Ocean County average was 208 per 100,000 residents.

Colorado’s zoning policies have generated controversy there. In Denver, specifically, there are regulations that prohibit dispensaries from being operated in mixed-use or residential areas, the Denver Post reported. Specifically, they are allowed to operate in commercial and industrial zones. In Seaside Heights, the boardwalk has its own zone – the Resort Recreational Zone – which is separate from the business zone. 

A University of Colorado study found that cities have, indeed, formulated regulations restricting where dispensaries can operate. In the university’s report, researchers focused on how the businesses are often pushed into minority neighborhoods – a largely moot point in a small, and not particular diverse town such as Seaside Heights – but also focused on local control of the pot business.

“Though technically medical marijuana dispensaries provide a healthcare service, they have historically been required to adopt the same zoning restrictions as businesses that sell alcohol, pornography, and firearms,” said Jeremy Németh, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Planning and Design. “Generally, stores that sell these types of ‘vices’ are prohibited from locating in residential or mixed-use neighborhoods and are pushed into much less affluent neighborhoods.”

So-called “proximity buffers” were worked into Colorado’s law, allowing towns to restrict the sale of marijuana near parks, beaches and schools – similar to the regulations included in New Jersey’s medical law.

“As medical marijuana has become legal in 23 states and D.C., municipalities must determine where these businesses will be allowed to operate,” said Németh. “I encourage my students, and city planners, to think about the impacts zoning regulations have on the entire community, not just adopt regulations that have been in place for other vices.”

But for Seaside Heights, a town on the mend after Superstorm Sandy and several years of what many consider negative publicity generated by MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” the priority, officials said, is keeping its clientele family-oriented.

“If it becomes a law, we will abide by whatever the law says, but we won’t have to like it,” said Vaz.

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  • Peter James Smith

    I can understand the concern, but I think everything is going to be okay.

    • Tom Messner

      Peter… you have to be kidding me. Everywhere I go in town almost at anytime I can smell pot burning somewhere. One day it was so bad on the beach that I had to ask the cop (a summer special) ridding around on the 4 wheeler if he had a cold since he didn’t seem to smell the Pot that people were smoking a few feet away. I can’t imagine what happens after Murphy makes it legal.

  • Dominick Carnevale

    This article lost all credibility when it stated that there are 23 states with legal medical marijuana, when in fact there are 29, plus Washington D.C.

  • Tom Messner

    Trying to visualize legalized marijuana.
    Pot fog will become the next weather warning, with visibility estimates measured in the 100s of feet instead of fractions of a mile. You won’t have to buy your own pot, there will be so much smoke hovering over town that you will get a contact high walking from your car in the church parking lot to the front door of the church.
    Phil Murphy how about a compromise… you legalize pot but tax the hell out of rolling papers, pipes, matches and lighters.

  • Not Sandy’s Friend

    I can’t believe, with all the problems NJ has, our new Governor made this his priority.

  • Mac

    I fail to see the problem here. If Seaside wants to fill the town and boardwalk with tourists, even in the off-season, simply replace planting dune grass for beach security with planting pot plants to stabilize these sandy foundations. The Vas Bros. Benefits Plan could even be enhanced with a parking meter located next to each pot plant. Win-win.

  • Goodgrief

    It is great that Seaside Heights is cleaning up it’s act.

    • Mac

      Laughing. You do know those angels on the beach were ‘sand angels?’

      • Goodgrief

        LOL well anything is an improvement!

  • Barry Dugac

    By making pot legal in New Jersey will cause more problems for the police of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park. If you think things are bad now. When they make pot legal it will be really bad.