OCEAN CITY – With little to no mention of the proverbial gorilla in the room, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved Rick Laws’ plans for a 64th Street hotel, despite knowledge that the town has already taken steps to condemn and seize the land.
Regardless, Laws, whose family owns the neighboring 64th Street Shopping Plaza including the Rick’s Market business, got the nod of approval he was looking for by way of a unanimous vote from the Planning and Zoning Commission as members stuck to the project in front of them and rightfully paid no mind to the legal battle for the land between the town and the Laws family that appears to be inevitable at this point.
The Mayor and City Council passed an ordinance last month that would allow the town to move forward with condemnation for the 200 64th Street location, which was formerly the site of the old Slide-N-Ride amusement facility, to be used as an eventual expansion for the neighboring wastewater facility.
Town officials have contested that Laws’ property is a necessary piece of the town’s growing puzzle so to speak, and that although they have looked around, they claim there is simply no better option than the 64th Street bayfront parcel.
“The land is contiguous [to the current facility] and it’s a vital part of our future,” said City Manager Dennis Dare.
Laws had originally planned to use the site as a four-story student housing building but switched his plans to the current five-story 104 unit hotel facility, equipped with an outdoor pool and many amenities for potential guests.
There were murmurs throughout the town that perhaps Laws had changed the plans as a way to drive the cost up when a jury determined what the “highest and best use” of the land would be.
However, Laws has always argued that he changed the plans well before the town moved forward with condemnation proceedings and that he found that a student housing building would have been a risk too big to take in lieu of the economy and due to a thinning foreign work force in Ocean City. Laws repeatedly denied any attempts to drive up the property value.
As Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith outlined the hotel for the commission, he noted that coming into compliance with various issues with the student housing building could have also prompted the change.
“They ran into all kinds of problems and issues code wise with the employee housing building,” said Smith. “Building, fire, and zoning departments all had different provisions they wanted put in there.”
The gray area, according to Smith, is the definition of what a hotel is because “the law says that you have to operate under the definition of a hotel, which means you have to operate purely as a hotel and be occupied like a hotel.”
Smith impressed the commission with Laws’ plans, which see a lower density in the amount of units he applied for and a building coverage of only 15 percent of the entire lot. Smith also noted that Laws had reconfigured the number of suites and regular hotel rooms, adding rooms (now at 72) and shrinking the number of suites (down to 32).
“It’s a low footprint as far as building coverage goes,” said Smith. “For a residential hotel is one unit per 500 square feet of lot room, so they could have applied for 166 units rather than the 104 that they are applying for, so they are under density in that respect, which is good.”
The commission seemed impressed with the proposed structure but more concerned with the paths that the visitors would take to the beach and sidewalk coverage than they were about wastewater treatment facilities and/or the best highest use for the building.
“If we are going to put 104 rooms and hundreds of people on that block now that you are going to put up a public structure, I want to make sure that we are handling the crowds and moving them in a safe and proper direction”, said Chairman Pamela Buckley. “It’s just too loosey goosey now.”
Smith was the only one who mentioned the Mayor and City Council’s wishes to condemn the property and he noted it to put on record that he had informed Laws of the potential loss he could take if he continues to move forward with his project.
“After the ordinance passed, I wrote a letter to Mr. Laws explaining to him that even though he’s in his rights to do this, putting more money into design costs would be at his own risk,” Smith said.