OCEAN CITY – Several local business owners gathered at a public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday night to weigh in on the review of existing regulations and procedures for outdoor displays.
Outdoor displays of merchandise are commonplace in Ocean City, particularly along the Boardwalk, where merchandise and signs are displayed, sometimes in excess, in an attempt to attract customers. Although the displays are considered harmless advertising, regulation has become increasingly difficult.
“Most all of the outdoor display has been done through special exception,” said Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith, who explained a brief history of outdoor displays.
According to Smith, display outside of buildings first became an issue in the mid-1980’s. The decision was made to have businesses gain approval for outdoor displays, with a mandatory two-year renewal. Smith explained that it became repetitive for the businesses to return every two years, so in 1993 the decision was made to have open-ended special exception for displays. By 2000, it was realized that the inspection was becoming too cumbersome and a three-year renewal was decided upon.
Since that time, regulation and inspection of outdoor displays has continued to be a difficult task for Smith, who noted that it was impossible to regulate all of the outdoor displays. Smith explained that the first non-compliance violation warrants a verbal warning, with the second warranting a municipal infraction. “I think the enforcement without a doubt from our limited staff is very difficult,” Smith said.
Smith presented a slide show, which featured pictures of both excessive and reasonable outdoor displays. The three zones presented were south of 3rd Street, 3rd Street to 17th, and north of 17th Street to the state line.
The Boardwalk proved to have the greatest number of outdoor displays with T-shirts, mannequins, signs and other merchandise featured outside of stores. Some stores remained in compliance while others were shown to be clearly protruding over the boundary of the store onto the Boardwalk.
Vicki Barrett, president of the Boardwalk Development Association (BDA), spoke on behalf of the BDA.
“The BDA supports the visibility of the Boardwalk business,” Barrett said, explaining the importance of the displays for profitability. “We do feel that signage needs to be regulated and limited,”
Joe Moore, an attorney representing several property owners, also supported outdoor displays with regulation.
“We hope that your goal is regulation not prohibition,” he said.
Moore firmly opposed reduction or elimination of outdoor displays, maintaining that they enhance the businesses as well as the visitor’s experience.
Lou Bush, long-time Boardwalk business owner, pointed out the difficulties that businesses are already facing, imploring the commission to not make it any more difficult by taking away a necessary component of their businesses. “In all this time, we’ve never had a complaint from any visitor or city official,” he said.
Bush pointed out that many businesses, such as Malibu’s Surf Shop located on 8th Street and the Boardwalk, would look like a private home with a sign on it without the aid of outdoor displays.
Bush proposed that the first offense result in a written warning, with the second and third offenses resulting in $500 and $1,000 fines, respectively.
Chris Shanahan, owner of K-Coast Surf Shop, located on 35th Street and Coastal Highway, also defended outdoor displays.
“On the highway, if you don’t have an outdoor display, than you’re missing the boat,” he said. Shanahan.
Jeff Thaler, chairman of the Board of Zoning and Appeals, said that the problem lies with enforcement.
“We need the enforcement of rules to be stronger and we need more personnel,” he said, advising the Planning and Zoning Commission to focus its attention on strengthening enforcement rather than reducing displays.
The commission asked Smith how many additional people would be needed to handle the task. Smith estimated that the job could be done with the addition of one to two extra employees specialized in that field. “I think budget wise it can be done,” he said.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas was also at the public hearing, as both a council member and as a Boardwalk business owner. In a later interview, Pillas said that she agreed with the opinions voiced at the hearing. She also agreed that displays are necessary but need further regulation. “It puts down a playing field that’s fair to everyone,” she said.
Pillas said she was encouraged by the efforts being made.
“I love seeing the industry itself come forward and say let’s do something,” she said. “I think that shows that the town pulls together and tries to get things accomplished”
Pillas added that there needed to be a balance, with consideration to both the town’s and businesses’ best interests.
The Planning and Zoning Commission decided not to deliberate that evening and decided instead to leave the public hearing open. The commission will be accepting written comments for the next two weeks before making a decision. They will also be garnering opinions of different departments and business owners.