OCEAN CITY — A needs assessment is underway and a public hearing date for the Planning and Zoning Commission has been set on the issue of overcrowded and rowdy rentals in Ocean City’s single-family housing districts.
While all involved agree that problems have been occurring, officials noted that there needs to be a balance between tightening the code to combat overcrowding without alienating owners who bought their homes with the expectation that they could rent them when not occupied.
Over the past few months, there has been growing concern over the exploitation of rental properties in R1 districts. Some homes, which are considered single-family by the town, have been rented out to large, unrelated groups who on occasion have wreaked havoc with their neighborhoods. While most real estate agents and renters screen clients, others have been accused of turning a blind eye. Concerns arise because of excess noise from partying and renters being inconsiderate when it comes to parking.
The Planning and Zoning Commission acknowledged that something needs to be done as the current situation is unfair to actual families in the neighborhoods, agreeing to hold a public hearing on Aug. 19 for further debate.
“If all of the current laws were being abided by, a lot of the issues wouldn’t exist,” said Pam Buckley, chair of the commission. “However, I do think that we’ve come to the point where single-family neighborhoods, the R1 and MH1, deserve some sort of protection because we cannot maintain control.”
Control cannot be maintained because, while there are codes on the books to deal with renters overcrowding homes, they are difficult to enforce, according to Blaine Smith, zoning administrator.
“I do know for a fact that it is not enforceable the way that it is. We do not have the staff, there’s the privacy act, there are housing codes and there are many things that we can’t violate to get where we’re talking if we leave the code as is. Single-family cannot be protected through zoning the way the code now reads,” Smith said.
The commission has a lot of possible routes for changing the code to make it easier to enforce. Removing the option for owners to rent out their homes in R1 districts would be extremely unlikely if even possible but the code could mandate longer rental periods. When trouble makers are only renting a property for a week it’s harder to catch them either overcrowding or otherwise being nuisances.
“Many times when the complaints come, because it is so transient, by the time we get the complaint the people have gone. The harm is done and then they go … Once they have to go to long-term rental, they’re not a moving target like they are now,” Smith said.
However, before the commission considers altering the code in anyway, Smith recommended that they take a look at the issue from both sides. While they obviously want to protect the peace and quiet of the R1 neighborhoods, Smith noted that many of the homeowners are only part-time occupants and choose to rent their homes out for portions of the year for extra revenue. If the commission drops the hammer and takes away the ability for people to rent their homes or limits their options, the city could be hurting those other home owners.
“You weigh the two on what we do –are we protecting who from who. They made an investment and if you take away their rental potential, be it only four months, six months or whatever, you’ve got to weigh that against the people who own these properties and what their hopes would be and yet have something that will meet the need of the community as a whole.”
Serious limitations to renting could have some long-term implications for the entire city as well. City Councilwoman Mary Knight, speaking as a private citizen, attended Tuesday’s commission meeting and warned the group that not adding restrictions to the code could eventually hurt property values, which would consequently influence tax assessments and could be a kick to the knee for the city’s budget.
Knight agreed that families in quiet neighborhoods deserve protection. Having witnessed first-hand the negative impact an overcrowded rental can have on an area, including increased trash and noise, Knight commiserated with upset homeowners who are asking for better safeguards.
However the commission chooses to respond to the problem, Buckley admitted that it will be tough to please everyone. That is what the needs assessment and public hearing are for, to give both sides a chance to have their say. On the issue of cutting into the tax assessment bottom line by limiting renters in some fashion, Buckley pointed out that if the situation continues to degenerate eventually Ocean City will start to scare away the families that actually live in their homes all year.
“If we don’t have people who want to live here, we’re not going to have people paying taxes and all of that type of thing,” she told Knight.
Town staff is expected to have more information gathered by the Aug. 19 public hearing.