A Seaside Heights borough council meeting that lasted for nearly four hours Wednesday night pitted some members of the community against the town’s motel owners over a plan that has been floated by officials to require an age limit for room rentals.
The borough, in recent years, has made no secret of plans to shed its image as the hard-partying town portrayed in MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and is considering two separate measures to curb underage drinking and what some officials have called a chaotic scene on spring weekends. First, an ordinance was introduced to ban “teen nights” and “18 to party, 21 to drink” events at nightclubs (see separate story), but the measure which drew the most controversy is one that is just under consideration: requiring either a 21 or 18 age limit to rent motel rooms and short-term stays in private residences.
“It’s a very simple ordinance that would follow other towns and most major hotel chains’ policies,” said Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz. “When you’re under 18 years old, you’re a child, and we’ve been renting to children who have created problems that the police and EMS have had to deal with.”
Motel owners balked at the idea and an attorney representing one establishment threatened a lawsuit under the state’s Law Against Discrimination that he warned could cost a “staggering” amount of money.
Indeed, some New Jersey towns, including Cinnaminson Township, already have ordinances on the books that set a minimum age limit of 21 years to rent a motel room. Several major hotel chains have the same rule, but Seaside Heights’ motels are generally owned by individuals who do not have to comply with corporate regulations.
“We all agree on one thing – there is a problem – correct?” asked Mayor Anthony Vaz, to a quiet nodding of heads from dozens of people gathered in the packed council chamber.
Motel owners centered their case against the proposed ordinance by stating it is people in their 20s – not teens – who cause a majority of the borough’s substance abuse issues and account for most of its arrests.
Jeff Bowden, owner of the Sand and Surf Motel, told council members he is also a schoolteacher and teachers’ union activist. In his statement, he said his guests are responsible. The problems that arise often come from teens who rent individual homes.
“The problem is not only motels, but independent [homeowners] who are struggling to pay their bills, and sacrifice a weekend to make the tax payment coming up,” said Bowden. “I speak to parents every week about their kids coming here. Most of the larger motels that can still afford it have ample security. The problem is that they’re being constantly bombarded in the street by kids who don’t belong there.”
Bowden said he once offered 12 weekends of prom rentals, but now has scaled it down to two or three per season.
“I think that going to 21 is going to cripple everything early in the season,” said Herb McGrath, owner of the Hershey Motel. “I’m not here just to protect my bottom line but businesses all over.”
“These kids who are 18 – they’re graduating high school, going to college, going into the military, and they want to protect themselves,” McGrath explained, offering anecdotes about what happens when teens do get into trouble: “The first thing they say is, ‘don’t tell my mom,’ and the second thing is, ‘please don’t let me lose my scholarship.’”
A representative for the Aztec Motel said she checks IDs upon checkin and keeps a copy on hand.
“You cannot ban 18 to 21 – that is our livelihood,” she said. “If you’re going to take away an 18-year-old’s freedom to sign into a hotel, you’re making a bold statement.”
John Wiley, an attorney for Atlantic Hospitality LLC, was the first speaker to mention potential legal action.
“There are business transactions where the state has deemed [discrimination] to be permissible, such as alcohol consumption under 21 or cigarette consumption under 21, but when it comes to public accommodations, which a motel is considered … they could be subject to an action in our court system,” he said.
“For a governing body to embrace age discrimination is a very, very risky strategy because, you know, you’re basically opening yourself up to penalties,” he said. “The sums judges adjudicate in these cases are staggering, even for a lawyer.”
The motel owners’ objections were countered by residents who said prom rentals – in motels or otherwise – are driven by business owners who look the other way on teen drinking in favor of profit.
“I, personally, am tired of watching ambulance picking kids up who have had too much alcohol and are overdosing,” said Theresa Bissel, a DuPont Avenue resident. “The motels complain about going to 21, but they created this. They watch the kids drink and they watch them get taken away in gurneys.”
“We want them to be successful, but they see what’s going on and they don’t want to do anything about it,” she added.
Diane Allen, another borough resident, said she was recently woken up at 3:30 a.m. by teens who were “partying” in a neighboring home. She told council members that motel owners should be held responsible – fined or even shut down – if teens are found with alcohol in their rooms.
“This mayor is trying to clean this town up so much, and he gets slapped in the face when he tries to do something,” she said, excoriating the motel owners who spoke. “I love this town, I take pictures of the sunrises, the sunsets and the ocean. I have grandchildren and I want them to be safe when they come here.”
Vaz said there is wide public support for cracking down on teen rentals, and the governing body can be expected to have some type of measure up for a vote soon.