OCEAN CITY – Although a formal recommendation to the Mayor and City Council was not a result of this week’s Planning and Zoning Commission’s deliberation over rental issues in Ocean City, a list of goals was formed as the commission looks forward to an open discussion with the legislative body.
The Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing last month to consider amending Ocean City’s Code in regards to Single Family Residential District (R-1) and Mobile Home Residential District (MH) for the purpose of regulating short-term and long-term rentals to protect the character and compatibility of the districts as single-family neighborhoods.
The public hearing came on the heels of growing complaints over rental properties. According to the city, there are 3,845 parcels included in the R-1 and MH districts with 276 of those obtaining rental licenses. Between 2013 and now, there have been 67 complaints logged in those areas over 19 months. Only 13 properties received complaints, which is 4 percent of the total number of 276. The complaints received are primarily from residents of the Mallard Island community.
The hearing left standing room only in council chambers with the majority of speakers asking the commission to focus on enhancing the enforcement of existing rental regulations, as well as complaints over overflowing trash, noise, parking congestion and the number of occupants of rentals being well over then the code allows.
On Wednesday evening, the commission reconvened to deliberate the findings of the hearing with each member taking their turn to state an opinion.
“The last thing I want to do is create more laws, rules and regulations or ordinances, so whatever path this takes us down I think our path ought to be to utilize the tools that we already have and not create more,” Commission member Palmer Gillis said. “It seems to me with the testimony that we heard and staff comments there are existing laws, federal and municipal, that will prevail and create a framework from which we can provide further guidance to the community.”
Gillis questioned additional funding for enhanced funding and pointed out the City of Salisbury provides enterprise funds for such expenses.
“I don’t know the money aspect as much but I think we need to put laws around the rental licensing money that is generated, which I believe is $1,060,000 a year to better enforce and improve the methodology that we have to enforce, implement and monitor existing laws,” he said.
Commission member Joel Brous was in agreement existing regulations need to be better enforced, adding smaller subsets of the R-1 district could be focused on when it comes to rentals.
“Not across the board because too much is set in stone but focus on the integrity of some of the smaller areas of R-1,” he said.
Commission member Peck Miller furthered, the town could better educate property owners and renters of existing rental laws.
“Tying into the landlords is very important in enforcing the existing laws that we have. I am not up for more rules and regulations, but I do want to make sure the sanctity of the single-family homes is taken care of, especially the people who live here,” he said.
Miller added the commission should consider placing a seven-day minimum on rentals in the R-1 district to help address problems.
Commission member John Staley recognized property owners’ frustrations with the police when a complaint is received, as many explained the police would drive by but wouldn’t stop and the problems, especially noise, would continue into the early hours of the morning.
“Also regarding licensing, for the number of people that rent versus the number of people that pay for a license is a big difference. There is a lot of money involved in that, and I think we should do a better job in licensing this,” he said.
Commission member Lauren Taylor felt that the rental license database should be better accessed by police followed by a notification to property owners.
“What seems to be missing is the attachment of how many people are allowed. The rental agreement has to state the law of occupancy,” she said. “In this age of databases, it seems to me the police should be able to pull it up to find out how many people are supposed to be there.”
Commission member Chris Shanahan also recognized a major complaint was high numbers of people occupying a rental.
“We have to solve that on the front end because that is resulting in the other problems of trash and noise. It is just too many people in a small area, so we have to determine how to regulate that better,” he said. “I am also of the opinion that we don’t need more fees or costs associated with having a rental property. I think the hammer should be on the back end with violations. These people have to understand the rules are in place and if they are violating the rules on a consistent basis there has to be a serious hammer that comes down on them financially.”
Shanahan also felt the rental database should be better kept up to date, especially with police filing reports of complaints to keep accurate figures with it comes to problem tenants.
“Enforcement is the key. I don’t think the police can do it all themselves. I think we need more zoning officials to help,” he said.
Commission Chair Pam Buckley echoed many of the same opinions as her colleagues.
“There are some issues, but I don’t think we need to start from scratch and recreate the zoning ordinance,” she said. “A rental license is a privilege and with that comes responsibility, and you are responsible for that property and its surrounding neighbors.”
Buckley furthered, the first piece of information required for a rental license should be a 24/7 contact who can be available if a problem should arise, and if the contact does not respond then fines should start stacking up.
“If we can have the rental agreement on site, that would be the best thing to do because people should have some sort of contract to be there. It should be in some type of legal form whether it’s the names of who is supposed to be there, the dates and a signature,” she said. “One of our biggest things is making sure everyone is getting a rental license and that is going to be part of the education process of the neighbors and the people that live in the community. If they don’t have a license and they are renting, there is a fine for that.”
The commission recognized the recently re-established Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe-housing (PRESS) Committee is currently addressing rental issues as well.
PRESS Committee is a group of town officials authorized to address communitywide quality of life issues. The group consists of members from the police, building, zoning, fire marshal and finance departments, functions as a task force designed to meet regularly and discuss civil and criminal code violations within the community.
Miller concluded the main points of focus were having a 24/7 contact on file and existing rules and regulations be made more public, heightened education, imposing stiffer fines, funded enforcement, consider a seven-day minimum for rentals in the R-1 district and PRESS to become more active.
Buckley was tasked to create a template of a recommendation to the Mayor and Council and asked for the commission to get on the council’s work session agenda as soon as possible to have an open discussion on how to move forward.