It is one of the last public beaches left on the East Coast where you can lie in the sun and get fried more ways than one. But the booze-filled summer days of Dewey Beach, Del., may be voted out of existence today, as the residents of this quarter-square mile town go to the polls and decide if liquor should be banned from their strip of Atlantic shore.
Dewey Beach started its incorporated life just four years ago with a reputation as a party town, less staid than the sober sands of Delaware's Rehoboth Beach or Bethany Beach, because its founders allowed drinking on the beaches.
"It was termed a noble experiment," said John Farrow, then a town commissoner and now the mayor. He supported the experiment, he said, but it just hasn't worked.
It was Memorial Day weekend, he said, that convinced him a change was needed. An estimated 40,000 visitors arrived in the tiny seaside town, whose off-season population is about 115.
"It was a town they came to enjoy, defile and leave," said Farrow. There was drunkeness, littering, public urination and defecation, he said, sometimes on the private property of citizens.
By Sunday night of the holiday weekend, Farrow recalled, the Town Council met in emergency session and imposed a 24-hour ban on alcohol along the crowded stretch of beach near Swede Street.
The next day a drunken fight broke out between two beach goers. Beach officers forced one man to the sand, but he escaped.
State police came, with a dog, but were not called into action. And Police Commissioner P. Brooks Banta ordered one block of the beach emptied in order, he said, to make it clear who was in charge.
But Banta said the beach is quieter than ever this year and he opposes the alcohol ban. "I feel very strongly that we don't want to take away the people's rights," he said. "I'd rather eliminate those people that don't toe the mark."
Police estimate the incidence of public urination has dropped at least 60 percent his year, he said, an improvement Banta and others attribute to the installation of the town's first public toilets in July.
The litter problem has been solved since Memorial Day, Banta said, by a new law he proposed, imposing fines of at least $50 on beach goers surrounded by three or more items of litter.
Banta said no arrests have been made, but that he inspects the 21 blocks of beach four days each week and is certain the litter is gone.
But resident Dee Moore said the view from her beach-front home is not so pretty.
"It's drunks who end up on the beach, it's public urination, vulgar language and vulgar action," she said.
She declined to describe the vulgar actions except to say that some people don't bother using the town's new portable potties. "Use your imagination -- let it go to the fullest," she said.
Such conduct inspired Moore, who runs two motels in town, to join other citizens and found Residents for a Decent Dewey, to get booze off the beaches.
"It can only make for a more decent Dewey," she said. "Any intelligent person can figure that out."
Another group was quickly formed to fight for the right to drink on the beach.
"I see no reason for a ban," said Greta Reed of the Dewey Beach Awareness Committee, who claims "people have been exaggerating a lot of the things that have been happening."
The town will lose by banning alcohol, she predicted, because many visitors will see no special reason to come to Dewey.
There may be some unruly ones," she added. "And now people say they are spreading down the beach. But if we let them keep on the move, they'll spread right out of town."
"You know how I'm going to vote," said Jim Lavelle, manager of the town's only liquor store, who considers the "open cocktail party" atmosphere of the beach about all that makes Dewey special to visitors.
Lavelle predicted that he will lose no business if the town votes for a booze-free beach, though. He expects that his customers will just switch from beer to easily disguised gin-and-tonics.