Despite the Ocean City Mayor and Council formalizing plans to condemn and seize his property, local businessman Rick Laws is proceeding with his intention to develop the land into a bayfront hotel.
Laws came before the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission last week to seek approval of his site plans for a five-story, 104-unit hotel, featuring 72 hotel rooms and 32 suites on 64th Street behind the shopping center he owns along Coastal Highway. The plans seemed to be cheered for the most part by the commission, particularly considering density says he could have built 166 rooms and the fact the building encompasses just 15 percent of the lot.
Although it was only briefly broached at the commission-level meeting, there was the proverbial gorilla in the room that night. It’s the fact the town wants the property and is prepared to do what it takes to secure it. All the while Laws is moving ahead with his private interests, which of course is permissible and his right until someone tells him it’s not.
This is clearly the beginning of what could be a long and costly battle for the town and the private property owner. All indications are it will take a court or a jury to decide whether the town can exercise eminent domain and take this property.
For the city’s part, officials contend that piece of property to the south of the current wastewater facility is needed for future sewer capacity. The town will need to expand its wastewater plant in the near future, officials say, and that adjacent property is the ideal site. Other plans for the land include additional transit parking and a public boat ramp, among other things.
It’s not a sexy issue by any means, but nothing is more important to a community than wastewater. It must be in good shape, from an infrastructure and sewer capacity standpoint, or the entire town is at peril. Inadequate current and future capacity can hamstring growth and cause public health concerns.
However, the heart of this issue is a private property owner’s rights vs. government’s interests. It begs to be sensationalized as the big, bad government body taking on a local family who simply wants to build on a piece of property that reportedly has some sentimental value.
There has been rampant speculation that Laws never intended to develop his property until he got wind the city wanted it. Laws adamantly denies that, and we believe him. We have spoken to several sources over the last couple weeks, and we feel there’s no dirty work at play here. He’s sincere in his plans to develop the property as a hotel. It’s not some farce to try and drive up the value of the property as has been alleged by some.
At the same time, the city’s desire to use this property was never a secret. What we are left with here is a serious dispute. This is not the first time the city has confronted this type of situation. A similar scenario unfolded at the foot of the Route 50 Bridge years ago when more room was needed for traffic flow. A court eventually decided on the “fair market value” then and this could well be what happens with this mid-town property. However, there will be some legal maneuvering along the way that could delay a ruling one way or the other for some time.
A compromise that works for the public and private parties involved appears to be the best-case scenario at this point. A court battle is a gamble for both interests and an expensive one. It’s unknown whether finding a middle ground outside of court is possible and even what those details might be, but it may be the best resolution for all involved. It’s certainly worth a discussion before the court is asked to intervene with a determination one way or the other.