OCEAN CITY — A land battle that seemed destined to end up in court took a turn this week as the two sides settled on a price for a highly coveted midtown property without the help of a judge and jury.
A verbal agreement between the town of Ocean City and local businessman Rick Laws has allegedly been reached to the tune of $5.1 million for ownership of the site of the old Slide-n-Ride on 64th Street. Laws owns the property and had begun the construction of a 104-room, five-story hotel despite Ocean City trying to acquire the site via condemnation proceedings, citing that it needed the land for expansion to its wastewater facility that directly abuts the property.
Laws said that the final paperwork will be signed in the next few weeks, making the transaction official, but noted that he is pleased that the battle is finally coming to an end.
“I don’t think it’s the perfect arrangement for either side, but for the most part I’m pleased with the outcome,” said Laws. “It ends up being a good negotiation if both sides don’t get everything they want.”
On Monday night, the Mayor and City Council voted 5-1, with Margaret Pillas in opposition and Joe Hall absent, to pass a resolution enabling the town to go to the bond market and essentially pay itself back the $5.1 million that it will take out of the fund balance to pay for the property.
City Manager Dennis Dare said going to the bond market was the best and most economical way for the city to acquire the land in the amount of time that Laws’ side wanted to settle in.
“We kind of had to fast-track this because they wanted a quick settlement,” said Dare. “Oftentimes, when you go to the bond market, it can take up to 90 days to advertise, sell and then settle on the bonds. So, the council voted the other night to spend the money and then basically reimburse itself.”
Rather than the 90 days for the final settlement on the finances involved with the transaction, Laws said that he was hoping for something more like 45 days, in order to pursue a new location for his hotel project.
“I think it’s a case of ‘the quicker the better’ for everyone here,” said Laws. “We are actively looking for a new location for the hotel project, and the sooner this is done, the sooner we can move on.”
The $5.1 million price tag was based on the average assessment of both parties, according to Mayor Rick Meehan, who said that although the price is more than the last assessed value of the site (a little more than $3 million), the long-term savings for the town is substantial.
“This was an absolute essential purchase for the future of Ocean City,” said Meehan. “This may have cost us a little bit more now, but it will literally save us millions of dollars in the future as we move forward and address the expansion of our wastewater treatment facility. If we didn’t get this land, I’m not sure what we would have done.”
Dare said the wastewater facility is the town’s most expensive asset and noted that the town’s plan is to not necessarily expand the capacity for wastewater treatment, but rather, expand the process to improve the way the town treats its waste. He also noted that the site could become multi-purpose.
“There’s three things that we are looking at, one of which is obviously the long-term plan for the wastewater facility, but on the shorter-term is an expansion of our city bus housing facility, which we have federal grants for, and also the possibility of installing a boat ramp near the water tower on 64th Street,” Dare said.
Conversations about the town’s apparent need to add another boat ramp in town have been going on for years, most notably in the Little Salisbury neighborhood where residents have been displeased with the public usage of the boat ramp off 87th Street. Currently, that is the only public boat ramp in the resort. Meehan said that although there is no current money allocated in this year’s budget for capital projects, securing ownership of the 64th Street property would help ease the residents’ concerns in the future.
“We made a promise to Little Salisbury that we would do all that we could to address their concerns, and this purchase will eventually satisfy those concerns,” said Meehan. “As for additional units to house our city buses, it will protect our fleet and make them last much longer, thus saving us money in the long run.”
As for Laws, he says that his deal with national hotel chain Hampton Inn is still in the place despite the change in plans, and he said that wherever he chooses as the site for his new hotel (one of the sites sources say is the Cropper Concrete Plant near 1st Street), the scope of the five- story project should stay relatively the same, “within 25% either way, depending on the site”, he said.
Town officials are quietly conceding that they dodged a bit of a bullet by settling out of court on the property, as it was presumed that Laws’ decision to begin the construction of the hotel would have shot the price of the property up well past the $5 million mark, as the judge and jury would have determined the not only the highest and best use for the property in the condemnation proceedings, but also would have accounted for Laws’ investment, which to date, is alleged to be in the $700,000 range.
“It worked out for the town, because they really needed the land, and if it would have gone to court in August, we would have had a great deal of the hotel already built,” said Laws. “So, I think this was kind of their last shot at getting it at what they felt was a reasonable price.”