OCEAN PINES – The Ocean Pines community center naysayers have won a decisive victory, casting nearly 1,000 votes more than community center supporters, in the second referendum on the project.
“It looks like it’s over,” said project opponent Marty Clarke. “The Ocean Pines membership, for the second time in six years, I think they sent a clear message. They don’t want to build a $5 million building.”
Ocean Piners will have to continue to make do with the original community hall for their meeting space needs after 3,519 votes rejected the $5.4 million community center.
“That’s what the people wanted, bottom line,” said Ocean Pines Association President Glenn Duffy. “I have no problem with the referendum count, no problem whatsoever. It’s their decision, not mine.”
The no votes, 3,519, outstripped the yes votes, 2,559, by 960. Roughly 60 of the paper ballots were considered ineligible because they were soiled or the markings were unclear, according to the OPA, and were not counted.
This referendum, the second on the project, asked Ocean Pines Association (OPA) property owners whether to go ahead with the project at the new cost, $5.4 million versus the original $3.9 million approved in 2005. That 2005 approval squeaked by, with a narrow margin.
About 8,400 ballots were sent out, one per property, and 6,139, or 73 percent, were returned. The no votes were 57 percent of the total cast, with the yes votes 43 percent.
Costs for closing out the construction contract have not been determined, said Ocean Pines general manager Tom Olson.
“I’ll be working with the contractor. We’ll discuss the terms of the contract and determine what costs are,” he said.
The association has indicated in the past, including in materials sent out with the referendum ballot, that costs for the project, despite it not being built, could reach $900,000. In May, Olson acknowledged that the figure is an estimate, and that the only actual number he had was for cost of preparation work already done, about $350,000.
Duffy and the other six members of the OPA Board of Directors have pushed hard to gain approval of the project, but the process has been marked by stops, starts and fumbles for months.
The new $5.4 million price tag emerged when construction contracts were being prepared. The $1.5 increase was high enough under OPA bylaws that the Board should have called a new referendum without question, many Ocean Piners believed.
Outrage over the cost increase prompted a petition drive this fall to force a new referendum when it became apparent the Board would not call for one. That petition was rejected, under controversial circumstances, in January.
In February, concerns over the location of the stormwater pond in relation to the Worcester County Veterans Memorial nearby surfaced, and Memorial supporters literally rallied around the flags before the pond’s location was tweaked to allow more space for spectators at memorial ceremonies.
Clarke filed a lawsuit over the winter, resulting in a temporary restraining order on construction in early March. No work had been done on the site at that point. The OPA then gave in and ordered the new referendum after the restraining order, despite not being legally required to. At the time, Duffy said that an order for a new referendum was inevitable.
Clarke later amended his suit, claiming that materials included with the ballot exaggerated the costs of halting the project and lobbied for a positive vote.
The ballot was sent out in late April, containing the question, “Do you approve the Ocean Pines Association continuing construction of the new Ocean Pines Community Center at a cost estimate of 5.4 million dollars?”
Issues with the post office caused a second mailing of the referendum question, and the due date changed from mid May to the end of the month.
Clarke said, now that the referendum is complete, the lawsuit is dead. He is confident a new community center will not happen.
“We’re not going to build a new community center. I say that without fear of contradiction,” Clarke said.
Duffy agreed the results on the most recent referendum likely doomed the project for good.
“The existing Board has got two and a half months. I don’t think we’re going to put together [another] referendum in two and a half months,” Duffy said. “That’s my opinion. I might be wrong.”
The Board of Directors has not decided what to do about the existing community hall, said Duffy, but the building could cost more than $1.5 million to repair and renovate.
Already, plans are in works for restoring the old community hall. “I’ll be asking an architect to give me a proposal on a rehabilitation,” said Olson.
Clarke, who is running for one of four spots on the Board this summer, said the community hall should be fixed up, and the OPA should charge for its use.
This experience has convinced Duffy that Ocean Pines needs to go in a new direction, and incorporate as a municipality.
“I think that would be the way to go,” Duffy said. “I think it’s a more stable form of administration.”