OCEAN CITY — Ocean City officials this week moved forward with the next step in a potential condemnation process for a parcel of bayfront land needed to accommodate a new public boat ramp, but not before an impassioned plea from the property owner to allow negotiations to continue and a rather abrupt ejection of another citizen from the council chamber.
The Ocean City Mayor and Council on Monday approved on first reading an ordinance which, if approved, would allow for the town’s elected officials to acquire by condemnation five privately owned lots along the bayfront between 64th and 65th streets if sale negotiations with the property owners could not be completed. In 2012, the Mayor and Council approved the development of a new public boat ramp facility at 64th Street including a two-lane ramp, channel dredging, trailer parking and a small comfort station.
The site was chosen because of its proximity to existing town facilities in the area, the commercial elements already surrounding the proposed location and its greater potential access in the center of town. The initial plan called for the new boat ramp to be constructed on property already owned by the town, but last summer, it became apparent the project could not be completed without the acquisition of certain privately owned property because of the placement of a water tower and other utilities near the site.
Town officials briefly considered reducing the project to a single-lane boat-ramp, but all agreed that would not meet the growing need for a public ramp in town. In addition, Ocean City risked losing its partnership and associated funding from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). For the last year or so, the town has been in negotiations with the owners of the property, which is now largely under water and relatively undevelopable because of changing wetlands regulations over the years.
The town had the properties in question appraised and has used the appraisal as a jumping off point of sorts for the negotiations. In recent weeks, the negotiations have continued in earnest and appear to be making some headway, but the ordinance introduced on first reading on Monday would allow the Mayor and Council to move forward with condemnation if the property sale talks break down or are not reconcilable.
One of the property owners, Robert Kirchiro, addressed the Mayor and Council on Monday and implored them not to move forward with condemnation. Kirchiro explained the property had been in his family for decades and some progress had been made in recent weeks in the negotiations with City Solicitor Guy Ayres.
“Our family has been here a long time, over 50 years,” he said. “I want to ask you to give us another two weeks to negotiate this with Mr. Ayres. We’re very close. We’re making progress. If you were in my position, knowing what I paid for this property, what would you do?”
Councilman Joe Mitrecic pointed out the ordinance on the table for first reading on Monday was merely enabling legislation that would essentially provide a condemnation alternative should the property sale negotiations reach an impasse.
“The thing to remember here is this is a first reading,” he said. “The second reading will come in two weeks. All this does is put in place to ability for the Mayor and Council to move forward with condemnation if and when it gets to the points a fair price cannot be negotiated. Even if this passes, it does not mean we are going to move forward with condemnation. The council is not ready to move into condemnation if the negotiations are moving forward.”
Kirchiro asked for the town elected officials to intercede in the negotiations, but Mitrecic explained Ayres would be handling the potential acquisition.
“The city solicitor is our negotiator,” he said. “That way, you don’t get seven different people and seven different opinions. If the council feels the negotiations are moving forward, we’re not going to halt that and stop negotiating.”
When it was his turn to weigh in on the issue, noted council antagonist Tony Christ asked Ayres on which legal precedent the condemnation ordinance was based.
“I’d like to see the case law you’re relying on to make a decision on condemnation,” he said.
However, Ayres said he was not inclined to share his information with Christ on the process.
“I’m not going to share my research with you,” he said.
Christ said he would do his own research and would likely challenge the process, if and when it gets to that point.
“I guess I’ll have to go to a law library and find it myself,” he said. “You might not like what I find.”
Christ returned to his seat in the council chamber while the debate among the elected officials continued. Mayor Rick Meehan began reasserting Mitrecic’s comments, essentially stating the Mayor and Council would move forward with condemnation only as a measure of last resort, if and only if negotiations stalled. Christ launched a salvo of expletives to no one in particular, voicing his displeasure with the proceedings.
Meehan immediately instructed the police officer on hand to remove Christ from the council chamber. Christ calmly left without further incident and did not return.
“We will not tolerate an individual yelling profanity at the Mayor and Council or in the council chamber,” Meehan said. “Because of his actions, he was asked to be removed.”
After the brief interruption, the debate continued over the proposed ordinance. Meehan reiterated the boat ramp project was supported by the community and acquiring the property, either through sale negotiations or condemnation, served a public need.
“This is something the public needs and supports,” he said. “We’re trying very hard to accommodate everyone. The property value has changed dramatically, but we’re going to continue to bargain in good faith. We’re moving forward with this piece of property to meet a public need. Hopefully, it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
Meehan pointed out the current boat ramp property acquisition effort is not the first time the town has utilized the condemnation process in the interest of the public good.
“We’ve been involved in condemnation cases before and I’ve testified in court on these cases before,” he said. “We’re very confident our city solicitor would not take us in this direction if it was not reasonable.”