OCEAN CITY - A group of residents is trying to persuade city officials to abandon their pursuit of a new bike path on a former railroad right of way in the city's south end.

The city received $87,000 in state transportation grants this year to study the feasibility of building a bike path on or adjacent to wetlands between 36th and 49th streets. But opponents, including a group called Friends of the Wetlands, say any plan to encroach on the city's shrinking wetlands would be foolish.

Summer resident Irene Lorenzon, a member of the group, said Friends of the Wetlands is against any unnecessary wetlands destruction.

"There are viable alternatives to this bike path," Lorenzon said. "They could change the configuration of West Avenue or use the alleys or Central Avenue. They don't have to go in and rip out the wetlands."

City Administrator Michael Dattilo said the state study will examine a north-south bicycle route from the Ocean City-Longport Bridge to Ocean Drive, including the railroad section and other alternatives.

"The end result could very well be that in that area, the railroad bed is not the best choice - and we should look at other things that are under consideration as well," Dattilo said. "I don't know of anyone on either side of the issue who supports some concept of a bike path that would do any damage to the wetlands or the environment, or increase flooding in that area. That's what this study is meant to flesh out."

Bicycling is a popular activity in the resort town, especially when parking for cars and trucks becomes scarce in the summer. The city's 2.5-mile-long boardwalk is the most popular bicycling route in the city. The city also created a bicycle lane on Haven Avenue at Ninth Street that soon will connect to the bicycle path over the new $400 million Route 52 Causeway.

But riders who want to travel in the south end must maneuver their way through the city's busy streets. West Avenue has a striped bike lane, which is narrow and must be shared with parked cars.

The city's Advisory Council on Physical Fitness and Sports suggested diverting bicyclists off the roads altogether by using the old Pennsylvania Railroad Seashore Line. The berm is overgrown with shrubs and cedar trees and gives a good view of phragmites and other marsh grasses on either side.

Trains stopped ferrying shore-bound visitors to Ocean City on the tracks more than 30 years ago. But many of the old wooden ties from the rail line remain, albeit in rotted condition, on a berm in the middle of a marsh in the city's south end.

The idea: to convert this berm into a bicycle path that would offer visitors a unique ride through the marshes. But Lorenzon and other opponents say much of this berm has been washed away over the years. Restored or expanded use as a bike path would damage the marsh, which is home to many shorebirds, including elusive rails.

"I don't understand why they're pushing this so hard. When it was first proposed, the idea was, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to bike from the north end to the south end along the marsh?'" city resident Sam Lavner said. "But that fantasy is being fulfilled by the Ninth Street causeway."

Lavner said the city should do whatever it can to retain its last remaining wetlands.

"In terms of biomass, it's one of the richest ecosystems in the planet. There are many reasons to protect wetlands," he said.

Ocean City is surrounded by marshes that stretch to the mainland in Upper Township. But the island has acres of inland marsh, too, much of which has been filled in and developed - sometimes illegally.

Stoeco Homes restored a 20-acre wetland off Bay Avenue across from the municipal airport in 2002 to settle a dispute with the state Department of Environmental Protection over a 170-home development the agency said impinged on wetlands.

"If Ocean City hadn't been allowed to go into the wetlands, the island would be about half the size it is now," City Councilman Roy Wagner said. "But in so doing, it took up nature's sponge. I suspect that's one of the reasons why we have so much flooding."

Wagner said the value of the flood protection and wildlife habitat the wetlands provide is far more important than the recreation the city would derive from a bike path.

The state rejected plans to develop similar recreation - including a foot bridge and bird observation tower - in this neighborhood because of their impact on the wetlands, Wagner added.

Lorenzon said the DEP would likely deny any coastal permits to develop a bike path in the same area. These permits typically consider whether a project can be accomplished without impinging on wetlands, she said.

With such long odds, pursuing the project is simply a waste of taxpayer money, she said.

"I'm not against bicycling," Lorenzon said. "I have two bikes in my garage. I use them all the time. We would have told them we'd be happy to participate in a meeting that would look at alternatives to have a city-long bike path. This is not about that. This is about the wetlands."

Dattilo said the study will address the hurdles of each option, including permitting. The consultant will present its findings in the summer, he said.

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