OCEAN CITY – Part of the town’s long-term strategy seems to involve the acquisition of the land once home to the 65th Street Slide N’ Ride, but the owners of the property have some plans of their own for the site and have told the town they have no intentions of selling.
On Monday, the City Council moved forward in a 6-1 vote, with Margaret Pillas in opposition, with an ordinance that would allow the town to try to purchase the property through eminent domain proceedings and pay fair market value as determined by a jury to the Laws family, owner of Rick’s Market on 64th Street and old Slide N’ Ride property.
However, it appears that the owners of the property don’t have any plans to relinquish their land, as family spokesperson Rick Laws told The Dispatch that the family is in the process of developing the property into a national hotel franchise that would boast over 100 rooms.
“I don’t understand why they are so interested in our property, especially when there is actually a larger property a few streets away that would probably work better for what it is they are trying to do,” said Laws. “We are in talks with three major chains and we were zoned for 166 rooms, but have plans in place for what will more than likely be about 104 rooms.”
Laws said a four-acre lot that is for sale on 67th Street makes more sense for the town to pursue, rather than going through what could be a lengthy and perhaps ugly court proceeding.
Mayor Rick Meehan, on the other hand, said that the town’s needs are better suited with the Laws property rather than the 67th Street one.
“We have looked at it, and it doesn’t meet the same test, and we’ve looked at all viable options,” said Meehan, “but at some point, we may need to grow our wastewater facility and if we want to continue our current level of service in the future, we thought it would be prudent to acquire this contiguous location to our current facility on 65th street.”
The Laws property abuts the Public Works facility on 65th Street and neighbors the currently maxed-out wastewater facility.
“The wastewater plant has plenty of capacity to run what we have in the city today,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic, “but, if that were to change, the wastewater plant would have to grow, and this would help. There are many ideas about what to do with the land and the ordinance lists all of those.”
In addition to an expansion to the wastewater facility, the ordinance also alludes to “potential public boat launching, transportation fleet parking, other support operations for the Public Works Department and parking for public safety and other city employees.”
Meehan said that in his 20-plus years in town government, he’s only been involved in two other cases like this, both of which he says the town won and have been “a significant benefit for the town.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said that the town, like any good business, is simply thinking ahead about what it needs for the future.
“Municipalities can and have acquired land in the past, certainly with just compensation to the land owner, if that land is needed for public service,” said Ayres. “The town has to consider if trying to acquire this property is worth it right now in the current market.”
Sources say that the Laws family attorney, Thomas C. Beach III of Baltimore, penned a letter to Ayres and town officials advising them that his clients, “have no interest in selling the property to the Mayor and City Council of Ocean City or discussing an amicable sale of the property.”
Beach’s letter also dispelled previous reports that the property is vacant, noting that plans were “enthusiastically approved” and a franchise agreement with a national hotel franchise was in the works, and warned the council of the “expense that it would incur” should it decide to take the matter to court.
In phone interview on Thursday, Beach said that his clients were not planning on simply cowering to the city’s wishes.
“They aren’t just going to roll over and play dead,” said Beach. “We are going to take this to the full run of the law if we have to. I’ve been doing cases like this since 1974, and they are all unique in their own way, and this one is very unique.”
A jury will decide “fair market value” for the property if an out-of-court agreement is not made by the Laws family and the town of Ocean City.
Meehan noted that the last time he had spoken with Laws, his plans were to use the site to build a four-story student housing facility.
Laws said he changed his plans due to the drastic drop in the demand for student housing this summer, due to the economy, and foreign students leaving town due to not being able to find enough work.
“I had heard something about a hotel, but if that’s the case, maybe this is the right time to have the conversation with Rick [Laws] again,” said Meehan. “Our goal is to negotiate a fair deal for everyone.”
Laws also wondered if the fact that his plans to put a hotel on the site would perhaps alter the town’s plans to seize the property, bringing up the almighty dollar argument.
“Why would they want to seize the property when we are going to put a hotel there, which would bring in tax revenue for the town?” queried Laws.