OCEAN PINES – Ocean Pines homeowners will find another referendum ballot on the cost of the community center project in their mailboxes in the next two months, following a court order calling a temporary halt to construction.
“It’s eight to 12 months late but it’s happening at last and it’s good news,” said plaintiff and Ocean Pines resident Marty Clarke. “On first blush, it looks like everything we asked for, we got in spades.”
Questions over the cost of the project and whether the summer 2005 referendum even authorized spending $5.4 million for the new amenity prompted Pines property owners to circulate a petition in recent months calling for a vote on the greatly increased cost.
The petition was rejected in January for lacking the minimum number of valid signatures.
A group called Stop Taxing Ocean Pines (STOP) organized the petition protesting that the increase from $3.9 million, as listed on the original ballot, to the $5.4 million price had not been approved by the community.
Clarke, a leader of STOP, filed a lawsuit last month seeking a court-ordered referendum.
Ocean Pines Association (OPA) bylaws require project cost increases of 20 percent or more to be re-approved by the membership, according to Clarke.
Last week, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenburg issued a temporary restraining order, halting construction activity at the community center site.
“They should have sought re-approval from the members,” said David Honick, Clarke’s lawyer, who asked for the restraining order on the grounds that work on the site would have harmed his client’s case.
Honick said it could have been months before the hearing on the lawsuit itself, which ultimately sought a referendum.
“I’m glad we’ve been able to stop it and make them follow the rules,” said Clarke.
The ceremonial groundbreaking, held in December, has yet to be followed by a literal groundbreaking.
“They’re ready to begin excavation,” said OPA General Manager Tom Olson. “We have not turned over any soil yet.”
Although the restraining order did not mandate a new vote, a referendum on the new cost became inevitable, Ocean Pines Association (OPA) President Glenn Duffy said.
“I’m not overjoyed about it but I think it’s the best thing to do at this time,” said Duffy. “I’m not too sure we have to but I think we were going to be told to do so.”
Duffy added that the OPA Board of Directors thought it better to be proactive. The Board voted Monday to hold the referendum. The OPA bylaws call for ballots to go out within 60 days.
“I’d like to get stuff out before then but I can’t comment when at the moment,” Duffy said.
The board will discuss the logistics next Wednesday at its general meeting. Before the ballot can be sent out, the referendum question must be written, and possibly rewritten after the board expresses its opinion, and then the ballots must be printed. The whole exercise will cost from $8,000 to $10,000, Duffy estimated.
What will happen to the Community Center concept if the higher cost is rejected is not clear.
“It would be a real disappointment,” said Olson. “The board would have to look to see what they wanted to do. They’d have some serious questions to ask themselves at that point.”
Duffy said that he does not see the OPA being able to build an adequate Community Center for less than $5.4 million. With the size of the building, 29,000 square feet, included in the original ballot, the OPA cannot simply use the approved $3.9 million budget to construct a smaller facility, he said.
“Twenty-nine thousand square feet at $5.4 million is a very good price for a very good building,” Duffy said. “I really don’t want to go back and reinvent the wheel by designing a whole new building. That would just increase the cost.”
The auction of the commercial parcel, which fronts Route 589, between Taylor Bank and the eastbound Route 90 ramp, intended to substantially fund the project, has been postponed. The sale was originally set for March 16.
The auction is said to have attracted strong interest from commercial developers.
“It’s not free. They’re selling our assets. They’re selling our property. It’s not free,” said Clarke.
The current community hall, which needs $1.5 million in repairs, would be adequate, Clarke said, if the OPA began charging for usage.
“You don’t charge anything [now]. You let ‘em use it for free,” he said. “Everyone in the community is paying for it.”
Charging for use of the community hall would whittle down the demand, said Clarke. He does not believe the OPA has a duty to provide meeting space. “What does their hobby have to do with you and me?” he asked.