Two More Ocean City Hotel Projects Gain Approval

Image courtesy of Atlantic, Planning, Development & Design, Inc. This is a prototype drawing of a Home 2 Suites by Hilton with the Ocean City version having a coastal style exterior

OCEAN CITY – Site plans for two more brand-name hotels within two miles of each other in Ocean City were approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission last week.

The first will be the final phase of the redevelopment at the 45th Street On The Bay, formerly known as 45th Street Village. A five-story, 120-room hotel to include a small retail area and outdoor dining will be built where the last row of the former village stands on the southernmost side of the property.

The hotel will be set back from Coastal Hwy. by at least 60 feet, which will serve as additional parking. There will also be parking provided under the building.

The commission discussed the number of discounted parking spaces, as the 45th Street development has grown into a mixed-use project with the existing retail and restaurant and now plans for the hotel.  With the addition of the hotel parking, the site plan meets parking requirements with a total of 321 spaces.

The hotel’s site plan includes the existing banquet space above Shallow Waters Restaurant, which is located to the west of the proposed hotel. Ocean City’s code allows for a 50-percent reduction in the required number of parking spaces for the banquet space as well as the restaurant space inside of the hotel.

“The code says mixed-use parking will not all be used at the same time, so they give a reduction to encourage more commercial development,” Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith said. “The assumption is they will have adequate parking based on the mixed-use of the property. Not everybody comes at the same time for the same use.”

Once the parking was clarified, the commission voted 4-0 to approve the site plan with members Peck Miller and Palmer Gillis recused and Joel Brous absent.

Keith Iott of Iott Architecture and Engineering was not available this week to comment on the potential hotel brand and when construction will take place. An approved site plan grants the developer 18 months to begin construction.

The next site plan up for approval was a Home 2 Suites by Hilton to be located to the west of the 67th Street Town Center. The five-story, 100-room hotel will be located off between the town center complex and Sunset Island in an area currently used as parking.

The hotel will be built on the northernmost side of the property with parking being located off of 67th Street and partially under the building. The site plan included the required number of 100 parking spaces.

“The hotel will cater to the midtown. It is becoming popular, the number one growing brand in the Hilton family,” Jeff Thaler of Atlantic Planning, Development & Design, Inc. said of Home 2 Suites by Hilton. “Hilton is excited about expanding into Ocean City. There are 120 now in the United States that have just opened in the past couple years. It is the most popular franchise that franchisees are looking to open right now.”

According to Thaler, Home 2 Suites by Hilton is a prototype hotel that is required to be built to specifications. The design is for a social hotel with a pool and outdoor deck as well as a fresco patio off the lobby.

Construction is slated to start in September or October with a completion date in 2017.

Without discussion, the commission voted 5-0 to approve the site plan with Miller recused and Brous absent.

 

Petition Seeks ‘Tax Rollback’ To 2009 Rate In Ocean City; City Solicitor Feels ‘Substance Of The Petition’ Violates State Law

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OCEAN CITY – A petition to referendum seeking a tax decrease is entering the signature verification process, but it is the Town of Ocean City’s legal opinion the substance of the petition will violate state law.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ) submitted a petition to lower Ocean City’s tax rate to the 2009 rate of 38 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ) spokesman Tony Christ recognized the Mayor and City Council were scheduled to cast their final vote on the Fiscal Year 2016 Operating Budget that evening that would raise the tax rate 2 percent to 47.8 cents.

“We wish to return the tax to 38 cents, which is a 21-percent reduction of over 9 cents per $100 of assessed value. A tax reduction petition is both unprecedented and needed to stop the trend of residents leaving and declining values in the Town of Ocean City,” Christ said.

OCTSJ members Christ, John Medlin, Mac Balkcom and Herb Pawlukewicz have spent the past 10 months collecting signatures and turned in more than 1,800 on Tuesday.

“Standing up here are not spring chickens and often I am asked why we took the time to carry a petition. The answer is quite simple. From Washington to Annapolis to Snow Hill to the Town of Ocean City, we believe the political class is robbing the younger generation of their birthrights and imposing involuntary servitude upon them. We believe the political class has acted irresponsible with public funds and in doing so has placed the kids’ future in jeopardy and in violation of their inalienable rights guaranteed in this constitution.

When a child exceeds his allowance, overspends, what do you do? Pay him more or cut him or her back?” Christ said. “It is healthy for the voter to take out the cattle prod every now and again to remind the political class who the boss is. Oftentimes politicians promise to be good custodians of the public purse strings to get elected then once in office they don’t live up to their promises and their boss, the citizens, must remind them.”

According to Charter Amendment Procedures for Maryland Municipalities, “the residents of an incorporated city or town may initiate an amendment to a municipal charter by gathering the signatures of at least 20 percent of qualified municipal voters on a petition in the same fashion that a charter amendment approved by a municipal governing body may be petitioned to referendum.”

Once the appropriate number of signatures is verified, the Town of Ocean City will be required to conduct the referendum within 90 days or at the next scheduled election, which is in November of 2016.

The Worcester County Board of Elections reported to the OCTSJ there are 5,274 active voters and 865 inactive voters for a total of 6,139 active and inactive voters in Ocean City. Twenty percent comes to 1,228 signatures of verified voters for the petition to qualify for a referendum. It is important to note the voter role has been reduced by over 1,000 in the past year.

On Monday, City Clerk Kelly Allmond verified she had received 1,827 signatures. However, this does not confirm or deny the validity of the signatures being registered Ocean City voters.

Christ first brought the petition effort to the Mayor and City Council’s attention in October. At that time, Finance Director Martha Bennett had the most recent CAFR in hand pointing out in 2009 the town collected close to $47.9 million in property taxes compared to 2013 when the town collected almost $42 million, which is almost a $5 million decrease in what the town billed the taxpayers of Ocean City.

Bennett also reviewed in 2010 the town collected about $43.8 million in property taxes, in 2011 about $42.7 million and in 2012 almost $42.6 million.

“In 2013, you did not raise taxes, in fact they were lowered. We took extra room taxes during those years because we never saw declining room taxes during the recession. That increased from $11 million [2009] to $13 million [2013], and we were able to balance our budget with other sources and fees but property taxes that we billed the property owners in Ocean City is less in 2014 and 2015 then it was in 2009,” Bennett said.

Former Councilman Joe Mitrecic, who now serves as County Commissioner, also presented the ongoing argument that if the tax rate is cut, city services will also have to be cut.

“When you decide that you want it to be 38 cents you also have to decide what you want taken away,” he said at that time. “Do you want the streets cleaned in front of your house? Do you want the city to stop picking up your trash? Do you want clean water coming out of the tap? That is what it comes down too. We provide services with your tax dollars, and whatever services you don’t feel that you need any more than this council can bring that tax rate down.”

In Christ’s opinion, a cut in city services is not an excuse.

“There is no way this can’t be handled. They can take $1 million out of EMT service to West Ocean City and $2 million out of the police budget. Put them on furlough six weeks in the winter, they would love it … take $1 million off of the winter bus route and save the wear and tear on the buses … the other $4 million can come out of advertising …,” he said on Monday.

The Mayor and City Council voted to approve the FY16 Budget in its final reading on Monday evening. At the conclusion of the meeting, City Solicitor Guy Ayres recommended the council vote to request the Worcester County Board of Elections verify the number of petition signatures.

“I suspect that there may be some litigation over this petition, and the court is not going to reach a determination if the petition has not been verified with the requisite number of signatures,” Ayres said. “The issue is with the substance of the petition. In my opinion, the substance of the petition violates Section 6-303 of the Tax Property Article of the Maryland Code Annotated. The substance of the petition would amend the charter, so your ability to tax would be capped at the 2009 level of taxes, and that is known as a ‘tax rollback.’ In the case of Board of Election Supervisors vs. Smallwood … the court had ruled tax rollbacks are not proper charter material and violate Section 6-303.”

The Mayor and City Council voted unanimously to request the Board of Elections verify the number of signatures on the petition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City Council Approves Budget At Constant Yield Rate

OCEAN CITY – Despite final pleas from some, the Mayor and City Council passed the upcoming fiscal year budget based on a tax rate of 47.8 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

On Monday evening, the council was presented the Fiscal Year 2016 Operating Budget for approval in its second and final reading.

The budget is based on a tax rate set at constant yield of 47.8 cents for $100 of assessed property value. The town’s current property tax rate is set at 47.04 cents. The property tax rate proposed will generate $40,239,417.

As of the end of FY15, which is June 30, approximately $2 million will be available for appropriation, which leaves over $11 million in reserve, meeting the town’s fiscal policy of 15 percent of previous year General Fund expenditures.

Out of that $2 million, the council has been in consensus to appropriate $1.6 million to fund additional capital improvement projects, including canal dredging, street paving, exterior repairs to the Public Safety Building, the town’s local match for the Public Works facility campus plan, a feasibility study for another Roland E. Powell Convention Center expansion project, city security upgrades, the painting of two Solid Waste vehicles, the first phase of Winterfest structure replacements and a social media recruitment campaign for the police department.

The budget was passed on first reading with Councilman Matthew James being the only voice of opposition.

“I didn’t vote for the budget in first reading and I am sticking with my vote,” James said this week. “I understand that my concerns should have been addressed during the budget meetings and the hearing. I really thought we did a good job during the budget meetings, and I learned a lot but it wasn’t until afterwards that I felt we could have cut some spending, and it would have showed the voters that we are listening.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca recognized many Ocean City taxpayers question constant yield in how the tax rate may slightly be raised but only to bring in the same revenue as last year due to a decrease in assessments.

“We know that when assessments go down, the rate goes up and the dollars remain the same. This year our assessments in Ocean City overall went down 1.6 percent and if you look at our .478 versus .4704 that tends to be a 1.6-percent increase,” DeLuca said. “The process went very well. We had 28 departments present, and during those presentations the Mayor and City Council had the opportunity to ask anything. We could have cut, increased and questioned for two weeks … we didn’t increase dollars at all. When you look at total tax dollars, there is no increase at all.”

Budget Manager Jennie Knapp explained the difference in the FY15 and FY16 property tax line item is an increase of $151,000 due to estimated increases in certain line items, not from the tax rate.

“That difference is because in FY16 the State’s Assessment Office is estimating that there will be new construction that is going to give us an additional $96,000 in revenue. Part of that estimate is not just property tax on home owners. There is personal property tax. I increased the estimate of what we will receive from personal property tax by $4,000. The estimation for corporation tax by $3,000 and there is also interest in penalties that I increased by $5,000,” Knapp said. “In FY15, there was also an estimate for new construction and we received $16,680 in revenue. The tax generated in FY16 on the new construction is approximately $26,600. So when you come right down to it the money that we are going to get from homeowners and taxpayers in the Town of Ocean City is the same as last year.”

Former Councilman Vince Gisriel came before the council again requesting the tax rate be held at last year’s rate.

“Councilman James, I want to applaud you for your vote two weeks ago and your indication tonight that you’re going to vote as you did the last time,” Gisriel said. “It is refreshing to have a politician that reflects what the people want. You are reflecting what the will of the people is, and you have a long, successful career ahead of you if you stick to your guns and listen to the people.”

Contrary to what some may think, the council studies expenditures closely during the budget process, according to Mayor Rick Meehan.

“To hold it to constant yield is a great accomplishment,” the mayor said. “Our goal is to come in with the best budget that we could and to provide the goods and services that we think the residents are looking for. When you start to take them away, they start to notice them. It is important that the public speaks and I know part of your goal is to make sure that we are cognizant of what the issues are and what the feelings of the public are. Trust me we are cognizant.”

The council voted 6-1 with James opposed to approve the FY16 Operating Budget and its final reading.

 

Downtown Resort Events Questioned; North OC Concerns Raised

OCEAN CITY – Councilman Matthew James voiced ongoing concerns of the majority of the city’s free events taking place downtown again this summer.

On Monday evening, the annual series of events, OC Beachlights, schedule came before the Mayor and City Council for approval.

In December, the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) reviewed a proposal from TEAM Productions that had requested a three-year commitment to fund OC Beachlights, which consists of laser light shows with fireworks on Sundays downtown in the summer; fireworks on the beach downtown on Mondays and Tuesdays; and fireworks at Sundaes in the Park at Northside Park during the summer.

TAB unanimously approved a recommendation to fund $300,000 for TEAM-produced events in 2015 and 2016 and postponed a third year decision. Subsequently, the council approved TAB’s recommendation to approve the two-year contract.

On Monday, Councilman Matthew James, who works with the Carousel Group Hotels, echoed an ongoing concern among uptown businesses over most free events centered around the downtown.

“I have talked to many business owners in North Ocean City and quite a few residents and nobody feels that the funds are being distributed equally,” James said. “From what I understand this has been an issue discussed with TAB for years, and every year they say they will bring attention to it. I don’t think this is being addressed.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight, chair of the Tourism Commission, said a comprehensive review of the city’s free events will be scheduled for the commission in August and September. By that time, survey results will be available to provide input from visitors on the free events.

“We haven’t really looked at our free events comprehensively … hopefully it will help address concerns in the future,” Knight said.

Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out there is a larger population downtown in the summer but there is a shift in population in the off-season when most events move uptown.

“It is a good idea to evaluate all of the events and their numbers but it isn’t an uptown vs. downtown issue, its where the majority of people are. These events are to bring people to Ocean City as a whole, not to take them to one particular part of town,” he said.

The council voted 6-1 with James in opposition to approve the event schedule.

OC, Worcester Partner On Formal Inlet Dredging Request; New Minimum Depth Sought For Inlet, Channel

OC, Worcester

OCEAN CITY – Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City simultaneously approved this week sending a letter of intent asking for assistance to improve channel depth in order to keep commercial fishing and recreational activity thriving in the Ocean City area.

On April 21, a meeting, arranged by Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (District 38C), was held at the request of local commercial watermen to discuss the increased shoaling of the Ocean City Inlet and Harbor and other areas in the local bay waters.

Over 40 representatives from federal, state and local agencies as well as commercial and recreational fishermen and members of the business and environmental community, attended the meeting. All agreed that the shoaling problem is increasing and is negatively affecting local commerce and recreation.

Carozza has been working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City to draft a Letter of Intent to be presented to the Army Corps of Engineers requesting the Corps’ assistance with dredging action of the inlet and harbor to a deeper standard of 14-16 feet.

The current depth of 10 feet is no longer adequate since the area fills within a short amount of time. The effort has been supported by other federal and state officials, including the Coast Guard, United States Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, United States Congressman Andy Harris and State Senator Jim Mathias.

Before the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Monday evening was a request to have Mayor Rick Meehan sign a letter of intent asking for assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the federal channel at the Inlet and West Ocean City harbor.

According to City Engineer Terry McGean, over the years and continuing to the present, sand has been coming through the Ocean City Inlet and depositing itself in the Inlet, harbor and surrounding bay waters. The degree of shoaling has increased dramatically in recent years to the degree that it is severely impacting economic and safety issues for both commercial and recreational boaters.

In 1998, the Ocean City, Maryland and Vicinity Water Resources Study was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers. It correctly predicted many of the sediment problems taking place now but it appears that they are developing more rapidly than expected. The Study recommended that the Inlet and harbor depth be increased to 14 and 16 feet, respectively.

“That was dropped due to a lack of federal funding in 2005. Since [Superstorm] Sandy it has been getting much worse despite the twice a year effort that the Corps does, even that is not keeping up with the  shoal and it is basically where the harbor and Sunset Marina channels empty out into the Inlet. Just a little bit east of there is where this tends to happen,” McGean said.

The resulting negative economic impact to the city, county and state is millions of dollars of lost revenue, McGean stated. Many commercial vessels have left the area and others are threatening to leave because of constant problems returning to their dock to unload their catches and vessel damage in the attempt.

In 2011, Joe Letts managed a fleet of five commercial clam boats in Ocean City. He had 42 employees. It took 2.7 million gallons of locally purchased fuel to run his boats. Groceries alone cost him $60,000 that year.

Lett was forced to move north to New Jersey because the ever-decreasing depth of the Ocean City Inlet made it harder and harder for him to get his 100-foot boats in without damage.

According to Letts, with a depth of 12 feet and sand constantly coming in, even the smallest boats are now having trouble navigating the channel. At 100 feet, the boats Letts managed were constantly scraping bottom. Trips to the shipyard for repairs, typically done every three years, became annual events, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars and weeks out of the water.

McGean concluded on Monday the letter of intent serves as a request to use the findings of the 1998 study and any update as necessary to verify that the conditions remain the same or are most likely worse since 1998 and to request that the Corps of Engineers move forward with the recommended project.

By signing the letter, it does not commit any funding at this time. However, if the project is ultimately authorized by the Corps of Engineers, the city could assume responsibility for some portion of the 10 percent local share of project costs. When the project was originally approved in 1998, the city had agreed to fund $35,000 toward the project.

McGean recommended after the Corps completes the project update and cost estimates, and the Mayor and City Council wish to remain a partner in the project that it be under the same cost sharing arrangement with the state and county that Ocean City uses for Beach Replenishment, which is 50 percent state, and 25 percent each city and county.

Councilman Dennis Dare was concerned over city funding going toward dredging in an area that is the county’s responsibility.

“When this was originally discussed back in the late 90s, the same point was brought up at that time. The council felt because the county had been such a good partner with us in beach replenishment that they would partner with us on this. That can be a decision to be made when the numbers come in on design and how much everything will cost. It may be we can do a lot of this with just in-kind services,” McGean said.

Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out an increase in dredging depth would benefit vessels heading north into Ocean City limits.

“If we get anymore visiting tall ships, they would be impeded by this,” he said.

The council voted unanimously to have Mayor Rick Meehan sign the letter of intent asking for assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the federal channel at the Inlet and West Ocean City harbor.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners also agreed to sign and send the letter of intent. Bob Mitchell, the county’s head of environmental programs, said signing the letter would enable improvements to begin and would get the channel to a depth more manageable for boaters.

Commissioner Bud Church, long an advocate of dredging local waterways, said he was pleased to see some progress.

“I’m thrilled with the way things are going,” he said. “Finally things are beginning to happen. People are paying attention.”

Carozza is grateful to Maryland’s DNR, the Worcester County Commissioners and the Ocean City Council for recognizing the urgent need to address this issue and agreeing to join together as non-federal sponsors to request the Army Corps explore the required actions and present a plan to them for possible approval.

The letter to the Corps states in part, “We respectfully request that you review and confirm the dramatic increase of shoaling in the Ocean City harbor and inlet area as soon as possible in order that immediate dredging relief can be provided to keep these commercial waterways open and safe, and to prevent further loss to the local commercial and recreational boating industry.”

Carozza added, “When the storm of 1933 created the Inlet, it forever changed the profile and economy of Ocean City, making it a premier boating and recreational destination. It is up to us and future generations to take whatever action is needed to preserve that legacy.”

 

Proposed Hybrid Residential District Banning Short-Term Rentals Moves To Public Hearing; Mallard Island Properties Leading Charge For Change

Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – Drafted legislation that would establish an R-1A Single Family Residential District in Ocean City and prohibit short-term rentals was forwarded to public hearing this week in advance of the Mayor and City Council making a final decision.

At the end of last summer, Ocean City experienced a growing number of rental concerns and complaints. There were a couple of public hearings held before the commission to consider a potential amendment to the City Code regarding the R-1 Single Family Residential District and MH Mobile Home Residential District 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 hearings 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 subdivision.

Although there was no official action made to city laws, the Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe-housing (PRESS) Committee was reunited to regularly discuss issues and enforcement.

A couple of weeks ago, the Planning and Zoning Commission entertained the idea of holding a public hearing on a proposed R-1A Single Family Residential District that would prohibit short-term rentals but first legislation would be drafted.

At that time, Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith brought forward a petition signed by close to 80 percent of Mallard Island property owners in favor of the community being rezoned as an R-1A Single Family Residential District, which does not exist in Ocean City’s code. Currently, Mallard Island is zoned as an R-1 Single-Family Residential District.

“What is being requested by the Mallard Island subdivision is they would like a hybrid single-family residential district … an R-1A single-family district will prohibit short-term rentals and allow only year-round rentals where you cannot rent less than 12 months. It would protect single-family neighborhoods from not having transient rentals,” Smith said.

The commission voted last month to have staff draft an ordinance that would establish the R-1A Single Family Residential District in Ocean City’s code.

On Tuesday, Smith returned before the commission with a draft ordinance stating the purpose of an R-1A Single-Family Residential District, “is to provide for established year-round residents to maintain the integrity of family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and to make the area a sanctuary for people living in the neighborhood and to avoid the adverse effects of transient short-term rentals. This district is for single family residential development, together with accessory uses as may be necessary or are normally compatible with residential surroundings.”

Smith said, “When I drafted the purpose I tried to differentiate it from the R-1 district, which is our standard single-family resident district that protects single-family residents whether they are short-term, long-term or permanent residents.”

The draft ordinance also states the permitted use is, “building or land in the R1-A single-family residential district shall be used for only the following purposes: detached year round single-family dwellings. Short–term rentals are prohibited within the R-1A district.”

“Times have changed in Ocean City,” Smith said. “We have seen single-family residential districts normally function for permanent residents or second homes, not rentals, but that is changing over time because of the growth of Ocean City.”

The draft ordinance also applies the definition of, “Dwelling, single-family year round residence. A building designed for or occupied exclusively by one family for a period of not less than 12-month period.”

Commission member Lauren Taylor questioned if the code’s standing definition of “single-family” should be referenced, which is no more than four unrelated persons.

“The definition of single-family has had a lot of attention placed on it but really is not the issue,” Smith said. “The issue is transient rental, whether it is four unrelated people or two families coming together, it is the transient nature that is disrupting these neighborhoods. It is how the neighborhoods are being affected by the turnover of people, whoever they are.”

The commission was in consensus the draft ordinance was worthy of coming before a public hearing when other details, such as enforcement and recourse, will be further discussed prior to making a recommendation to the Mayor and City Council for approval.

“This will be reviewed by the city solicitor, his office, and changes may need to be made and expanded upon, Assistant City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said. “Certain issues were raised tonight, some right and some not right, so it will have to be looked at. It’s a good start but it needs some work. It is just one step in a much longer process.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing regarding the proposed R-1A Single Family Residential District within the next month. The commission will then send a recommendation to the Mayor and City Council. If approved by the Mayor and City Council, neighborhoods will have the opportunity to apply to be rezoned as an R-1A district.

Prior to the discussion coming to a close, Geoffrey Robbins, a resident of Teal Drive since 1979 and former chairman of the planning commission, brought up former covenants of Mallard Island that once prohibited rentals but due to their nature today would essentially be illegal.

“The issue of rentals has just come up in the past year or two. The community was never intended to be rented and that was in the covenants. The covenants had expired because there were things in the covenants that can’t be put in print anymore, and I don’t think anybody wanted to go through the expense of rewriting the code for our community. It has always been a R1 community, and never intended to be rented whether it is for four months or 12 months,” Robbins said.

Lisa Gorman, owner of the so-called problem property in Mallard Island that raised many concerns last summer, was in attendance and the mention of the conveyance sparked her interest.

During the meeting, Gorman’s property was referenced once again and was rented last weekend with eight vehicles parked out front. According to Smith, the renters were not asked to leave.

“The Realtor said they were related in fashion,” Smith said. “If it was more than four unrelated people, then they would have been in violation but that could not be determined … Central Reservations said it was rented to a family.”

According to Gorman, neither the city nor Central Reservations has made her aware of complaints over her property. Her six-bedroom home in Mallard Island with a pool in the backyard is rented out weekly during the summer season, and she was not made aware of neighborhood regulations prohibiting short-term rentals prior to buying the home as an investment property for rentals.

Gorman stated the only form of complaint she has received was an anonymous letter from a neighbor harassing in nature stating racial slurs regarding African-American renters in the home last summer. The handwritten letter was accompanied by a photo of the renters in the pool.

“If somebody would have just said, such as the listing agent, that this isn’t the kind of neighborhood for rentals but I guess they just wanted to make a sale,” she said.

If the R-1A district is approved and Mallard Island becomes an R-1A district, Gorman will be left with a six-bedroom home to either be leased for 12 months or sell.

“That is not going to work for me,” she said. “That was not my intent. My intent was an investment … I thought Ocean City was a rental town.”

 

Wrights Bring ‘Fast Casual’ Restaurant Concept To West OC

Travis and Jody Wright, acclaimed for their The Shark on the Harbor operation, opened their second restaurant Culture last month. They are pictured in front of a “living wall” in their new dining room. Photo by Joanne Shriner

(Editor’s Note: Another in a series of stories detailing new operations and changes to the local business landscape.)

OCEAN CITY – Culture in West Ocean City is aiming to bring diversity to the local palate starting off with Peruvian cuisine.

Owners Travis and Jody Wright, long-time owns and operators of the The Shark on the Harbor, opened Culture on April 24, two days after Earth Day. The restaurant is located on Route 611 in the former Peppers Tavern home.

“When we signed the lease, we had already been working on the concept for a year and half,” Jody Wright said. “As long as I have known Travis, he has always wanted to open a Peruvian chicken joint.”

Travis Wright, a chef at both The Shark and Culture, grew up in Arlington, Va., near one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States, Washington D.C.

“There is Pollo a la Brasa [charcoal chicken] places all over the place that I had been going to since I was at least 12 years old … I have always been addicted to this chicken,” he said.

For years, Travis Wright would talk about opening a Polla a la Brasa in the Ocean City area, but Jody Wright was hesitant as Ocean City’s local population is much smaller than Arlington and wasn’t sure if there would be enough interest to sustain such a business.

“One day we just started talking about it and thought if we could build more around it where the chicken would be the base but have the supporting menu change annually just enough to keep it interesting. That is something I felt confident in,” Jody Wright said. “It is interesting that this culturally driven chicken is such a big deal in many areas of the world, and we like to travel and learn about different communities where we always ask about food and learn what the locals are eating, so we thought we could take the chicken as the backbone of the menu and have it be culturally inspired.”

The idea is every year on Earth Day Culture’s supporting menu will take on a different culture complimenting the rotisserie chicken.

“The golden rule is we are only doing it if we have been there,” Jody Wright said of the culture to be chosen.

Days after signing the lease in late January, the Wrights were on a plane to Peru to explore the culture.

“We didn’t know going to Peru that we were going to do Causa. I had never heard of it but we had it so many different ways there we knew right away that it should be on the menu,” Travis Wright said. “A Causa is basically a mashed potato cake flavored in number of ways. We had them with spinach, cheeses, avocado, beef, shrimp, chicken …”

For example, on the menu at Culture the Beef Causa is all-natural beef skewers, anticucho sauce, Peruvian potato and cheese causa, grilled vegetables and pickled escabeche. Culture also offers a Peruvian Chicken Causa and a Grilled Veggie Causa.

“We had a lot of ‘a ha’ moments. Another big revelation was when we went to a really fantastic cevicheria,” Travis Wright said. “In Peru they do it in a sushi bar style … you order the ceviche you want, they pull the fresh fish out of the case, cut it up right there and squirt what they call leche de tigre [look of the tiger] on it that is basically lime and cilantro based sauce and serve it to right there. There is no marination time, just super fresh raw fish served with leche de tigre. So we took that approach to the ceviche we serve here, but adjusted it to the American palate by cooking the shrimp.”

Culture’s Shrimp Ceviche is a mix of corn, plantain chips, leche de tigre and pickles onion escabeche.

The Wrights recommend when coming to Culture for the first time to start with the chicken A quarter, half or whole rotisserie chicken is available that comes with two sauces and two sides, of which they recommend the simple salad and the hand cut fries.

“That is a traditional Peruvian meal,” Travis Wright said.

The second part to Culture is fast casual dining.

“Fast casual is still a term that is being defined in the industry. Our model is cook to order but the food comes out fast and convenient,” Jody Wright said, adding beer and wine is available for dine-in and carry-out.

Besides ordering your meal at the counter or over the phone, online ordering will also be available through Culture’s website, www.culturerestaurant.com, where an order can be placed to pick up a few minutes later or at a designated time.

“We have put a lot of time in environmentally packaging, so that it comes out perfect,” Travis Wright said.

In taking over the former Mexican restaurant, the Wright’s transformed the space to be culturally neutral, displaying artwork the Wrights brought home from Peru but when the culture changes, the space will also visually change to reflect the new culture.

“When we were in Peru, they had a lot of structures built of living landscaping, everything is covered with plants, so we wanted to create a visual in this space that reflected that,” Jody Wright said.

She snapped many individual photos of a landscape structure in Peru and handed them over to Wyatt Harrison of Plak That, who recreated the photos into a “living wall” that is displayed in Culture’s dining room. Another wall has been dedicated to local artists.

The early response to Culture has been overwhelming, the Wrights said, with guests returning multiple times in a week.

“We are so very thankful for the local support,” Jody Wright said.

‘Tax Rollback’ Petition Turned In; City Solicitor Thinks It Violates State Law

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OCEAN CITY – A petition to referendum seeking a tax decrease is entering the signature verification process, but it is the Town of Ocean City’s legal opinion the substance of the petition will violate state law.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ) submitted a petition to lower Ocean City’s tax rate to the 2009 rate of 38 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice (OCTSJ) spokesman Tony Christ recognized the Mayor and City Council were scheduled to cast their final vote on the Fiscal Year 2016 Operating Budget that evening that would raise the tax rate 2 percent to 47.8 cents.

“We wish to return the tax to 38 cents, which is a 21-percent reduction of over 9 cents per $100 of assessed value. A tax reduction petition is both unprecedented and needed to stop the trend of residents leaving and declining values in the Town of Ocean City,” Christ said.

OCTSJ members Christ, John Medlin, Mac Balkcom and Herb Pawlukewicz have spent the past 10 months collecting signatures and turned in more than 1,800 on Tuesday.

“Standing up here are not spring chickens and often I am asked why we took the time to carry a petition. The answer is quite simple. From Washington to Annapolis to Snow Hill to the Town of Ocean City, we believe the political class is robbing the younger generation of their birthrights and imposing involuntary servitude upon them. We believe the political class has acted irresponsible with public funds and in doing so has placed the kids’ future in jeopardy and in violation of their inalienable rights guaranteed in this constitution.

When a child exceeds his allowance, overspends, what do you do? Pay him more or cut him or her back?” Christ said. “It is healthy for the voter to take out the cattle prod every now and again to remind the political class who the boss is. Oftentimes politicians promise to be good custodians of the public purse strings to get elected then once in office they don’t live up to their promises and their boss, the citizens, must remind them.”

According to Charter Amendment Procedures for Maryland Municipalities, “the residents of an incorporated city or town may initiate an amendment to a municipal charter by gathering the signatures of at least 20 percent of qualified municipal voters on a petition in the same fashion that a charter amendment approved by a municipal governing body may be petitioned to referendum.”

Once the appropriate number of signatures is verified, the Town of Ocean City will be required to conduct the referendum within 90 days or at the next scheduled election, which is in November of 2016.

The Worcester County Board of Elections reported to the OCTSJ there are 5,274 active voters and 865 inactive voters for a total of 6,139 active and inactive voters in Ocean City. Twenty percent comes to 1,228 signatures of verified voters for the petition to qualify for a referendum. It is important to note the voter role has been reduced by over 1,000 in the past year.

On Monday City Clerk Kelly Allmond verified she had received 1,827 signatures. However, this does not confirm or deny the validity of the signatures being registered Ocean City voters.

Christ first brought the petition effort to the Mayor and City Council’s attention in October. At that time, Finance Director Martha Bennett had the most recent CAFR in hand pointing out in 2009 the town collected close to $47.9 million in property taxes compared to 2013 when the town collected almost $42 million, which is almost a $5 million decrease in what the town billed the taxpayers of Ocean City.

Bennett also reviewed in 2010 the town collected about $43.8 million in property taxes, in 2011 about $42.7 million and in 2012 almost $42.6 million.

“In 2013, you did not raise taxes, in fact they were lowered. We took extra room taxes during those years because we never saw declining room taxes during the recession. That increased from $11 million [2009] to $13 million [2013], and we were able to balance our budget with other sources and fees but property taxes that we billed the property owners in Ocean City is less in 2014 and 2015 then it was in 2009,” Bennett said.

Former Councilman Joe Mitrecic, who now serves as County Commissioner, also presented the ongoing argument that if the tax rate is cut, city services will also have to be cut.

“When you decide that you want it to be 38 cents you also have to decide what you want taken away,” he said at that time. “Do you want the streets cleaned in front of your house? Do you want the city to stop picking up your trash? Do you want clean water coming out of the tap…That is what it comes down too. We provide services with your tax dollars, and whatever services you don’t feel that you need any more than this council can bring that tax rate down.”

In Christ’s opinion, a cut in city services is not an excuse.

“There is no way this can’t be handled. They can take $1 million out of EMT service to West Ocean City and $2 million out of the police budget. Put them on furlough six weeks in the summer, they would love it … take $1 million off of the winter bus route and save the wear and tear on the buses … the other $4 million can come out of advertising …,” he said on Monday.

The Mayor and City Council voted to approve the FY16 Budget in its final reading on Monday evening. At the conclusion of the meeting, City Solicitor Guy Ayres recommended the council vote to request the Worcester County Board of Elections verify the number of petition signatures.

“I suspect that there may be some litigation over this petition, and the court is not going to reach a determination if the petition has not been verified with the requisite number of signatures,” Ayres said. “The issue is with the substance of the petition. In my opinion, the substance of the petition violates Section 6-303 of the Tax Property Article of the Maryland Code Annotated. The substance of the petition would amend the charter, so your ability to tax would be capped at the 2009 level of taxes, and that is known as a ‘tax rollback.’ In the case of Board of Election Supervisors vs. Smallwood … the court had ruled tax rollbacks are not proper charter material and violate Section 6-303.”

The Mayor and City Council voted unanimously to request the Board of Elections verify the number of signatures on the petition.

Higgins Continues To Evolve With New Deck Area; Addition Grows Crab House’s Capacity

Over the off-season, Higgins Crab House on 31st Street added an upstairs deck and bar to give patrons the options of interior or exterior dining. Photos by Joanne Shriner

(Editor’s Note: The latest installment in an ongoing series this spring documenting changes on the local business front.)

OCEAN CITY – Higgins Crab House South’s new upstairs deck and bar for this season ups the ante in providing the traditional Maryland crab experience with a new view.

Higgins Crab House South has been located on 31st Street for 26 years and has evolved over time. Higgins Crab House North on 128th Street was established in 1999.

Over the years, Higgins Crab House South has gone through at least four additions, growing its space along with the restaurant’s rising success.  The restaurant started out seating just over 100 guests to now being able to seat close to 500.

The most recent expansion is the addition of an upstairs deck and bar. General Manager John Oleksak has watched the restaurant grow as he has been working with Higgins year-round since 1999, starting off in the back of the house doing everything from washing dishes to dropping fries and working his way up to general manager today.

“It was an idea that we had started talking about at least 10 years ago,” Oleksak said of the upstairs deck and bar. “It is a draw for the customers and is something that the customers wanted. They want to sit outside and for an idea that has been floating around we felt this was the right time to do it.”

About a year ago, the plans for the upstairs deck started to be drawn up with the go-ahead granted last summer when Higgins received its permits. Mitrecic Builders came on board with construction starting immediately after Labor Day last year.

The upstairs deck had its soft opening a couple of weeks ago to beautiful weather over the weekend.

“We had a great response,” Oleksak said. “A lot of tables wanted to go up there.”

Prior to the upstairs deck opening, the only outdoor seating Higgins had available was on ground level with 16 picnic tables that were found to be filling up first in nice weather.

“The upstairs deck has partial ocean view,” Oleksak said. “We are going to get a pretty good gathering there.”

With Higgins located on the ocean side of Coastal Hwy., it also provides a birds nest view for spectators. For example, the upstairs deck tables were first to fill up last weekend with customers wanting to watch classic cars during Cruisin’ weekend.

The upstairs bar has 26 picnic tables with umbrellas, new restrooms and the restaurant’s second full service bar with 12 Adirondack style bar stools.

“It is very comfortable,” Oleksak said.  “We wanted to keep a beachy crab house look but give it a fresh face but kept it rustic with salt treated wood, a corrugated tin bar front and metal roof. We wanted to keep it casual.”

Higgins is a classic style Maryland crab house specializing in all-you-can-eat crab meals, crabs by the piece or dozen and by the bushels.

The menu includes many other options from soup, appetizers and light fare to platters, a children’s menu and desserts for dine-in and carry-out.

“We have something for everybody,” Oleksak said. “Once the Maryland season opens, we try to buy everything local depending on weather and water temperature. Once we get into the season, about 95 percent of what we are serving is local Maryland crabs. Since the owner is from the St. Michaels area, he would rather spend his money on a local product and local crabber to keep the money local.”

Higgins has become an Ocean City tradition for many, according to Oleksak.

“We have generations of customers. We have seen children grow, now bringing their own children in, and hopefully that will continue for generations to come,” Oleksak said. “We have great food, great service and a lot of smiling faces.”

Higgins Crab House is owned and operated by the Higgins family from St. Michaels. With over 50 years of experience in Ocean City, a vast knowledge has been gained with regard to locating and purchasing the best, freshest, and best value for customers.

“Higgins is continuously evolving. We don’t like to sit around and be stale. We like to try new things and keep things fresh. We want to grow with our customers, and if their demand goes in a certain direction that is the direction we want to go in also,” Oleksak said.

 

 

City Council Votes 6-1 To Move Ahead With Budget; County’s Money Woes Discussed

OCEAN CITY – The budget for the upcoming fiscal year cleared opposition in first reading this week as the Mayor and City Council directed antagonists to the county if they are looking for a tax break.

On Monday evening, the Fiscal Year 2016 Operating Budget came before the Mayor and Council for approval in first reading. The budget is based on a tax rate set at constant yield of 47.8 cents for $100 of assessed property value. The town’s current property tax rate is set at 47.04 cents. The property tax rate proposed by the city manager will generate $40,239,417.

As of the end of FY15, which is June 30, approximately $2 million will be available for appropriation, which leaves over $11 million in reserve, meeting the town’s fiscal policy of 15 percent of previous year General Fund expenditures.

Out of that $2 million, the Mayor and City Council has been in consensus to appropriate $1.6 million to fund additional capital improvement projects, including canal dredging, street paving, exterior repairs to the Public Safety Building, the town’s local match for the Public Works facility campus plan, a feasibility study for another Roland E. Powell Convention Center expansion project, city security upgrades, the painting of two Solid Waste vehicles, the first phase of Winterfest structure replacements and a social media recruitment campaign for the police department.

Former Councilman Vince Gisriel, along with a couple others who echoed the same remarks, came before the Mayor and Council to voice opposition to the slight increase in the proposed tax rate.

Gisriel stated $35,000 for a feasibility study of a convention center expansion is “ill conceived.” He said $40,000 to repaint two trash trucks is high when a group of volunteers could do the job at a much lower cost.

“The convention center is expanded large enough, and I don’t see the need to expand it to accommodate a handful of events that may need more space, particularly since you opted to move ahead with the Performing Arts Center, and now you want the citizens to support an expansion,” he said.

Gisriel furthered the town should investigate privatizing and/or selling the Ocean City Municipal Airport and Eagle’s Landing Golf Course.

“The point I have been trying to make along with others over the years is we need to be frugal,” he said. “These things are going to continue to be a drain on the taxpayers of Ocean City, and I think now is the time to start to look at that into the future to save down the road.”

Gisriel pointed out Worcester County is facing a $189 million budget with a proposed 16.25 cent increase in the county tax rate, which includes Ocean City taxpayers.

“The responsible thing to do knowing that the county is going to raise the rate at some amount, I predict somewhere in the range of 7.10 [cents], which is bad enough but given that factor the local government should hold the line,” Gisriel said. “All I am asking you to do between now and second reading is to scrutinize it. Any way you can get it down to at least the level of last year or below because I think we are going to have a significant increase in the county.”

At this point, Ocean City Budget Manager Jennie Knapp asserted since 2009 Ocean City’s General Fund has stayed below $80 million and the percentage of tax revenue that funds that budget has dropped from 58 percent to 54 percent.

“The council has held the line. You use the word ‘scrutinize’. Well I know how many meetings the city manager and budget manager had with the department heads scrutinizing budget requests before it was even brought to the Mayor and City Council,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Then the Mayor and City Council sat with the department heads and scrutinized the budget again. There was a lot of time and commitment that went into this. It was not just a decision over night. It is difficult for those in opposition to the budget to find things wrong with it.”

The mayor added the county is in a difficult situation because the commissioners put themselves in that position.

“If you work for 12 years in Worcester County and retire you get health benefits for life, for you and your spouse. Tell me another state, city or municipality that does that, and that has been funded by Ocean City. They have had very few reductions in work force unlike the Town of Ocean City did, and it is catching up with them. It is unfortunate that we should pay for that mistake,” he said. “We will always do what we can to bring the budget in at an as low as possible rate and still provide the same level of service that everybody expects. If we cut it to a lower level that is being suggested, then it is the level of service that we will be cutting, and then we will have a lot more people in this room talking about the budget.”

Councilman Wayne Hartman added $40,000 to repaint two trash trucks over buying two new trucks is not something that should be criticized as well as moving forward with the convention center expansion feasibility study.

“This is just a small expense for us to look at the idea of expanding the convention center that would put us in a different league and attract more visitors. Part of the funding of the study comes from the Maryland Stadium Authority and our food and beverage tax. It doesn’t come from a penny of your tax dollars,” Hartman said. “It has the potential of driving business in town to the hotels and different restaurants that will generate additional room tax which will in turn result in a cost saving, so that is a new business opportunity that we are exploring and should be complimented for doing that.”

Hartman also pointed out the proposed budget is not only based on constant yield but includes unspent money.

“Those things are to be commended. I think it is an awesome budget,” he said.

Unlike his colleagues, Councilman Matthew James was not in favor or raising the tax rate to constant yield.

“I have received many phone calls over the past couple weeks, and I agree with most of what people are saying, and it all has been along the lines of what Mr. Gisriel is saying,” James said. “We have a great town, and we have great staff, but when I was campaigning and walking through neighborhoods talking to taxpayers and residents they were all concerned with the tax rate and the budget. We were elected to look out for them, and I did not talk to anybody who wanted to see an increase.”

Councilman Dennis Dare does not understand why it is the opinion that setting the tax rate at constant yield is considered a tax increase.

“Nobody makes a check out for 47.8 cents for their taxes. They make a check out that multiplies the tax rate times their assessed value. Sometimes when a property is reassessed our values go down and sometimes they go up. This last reassessment all of Ocean City’s went down slightly, although some properties had an increase. Your taxes are going to go up whether it is 47.04 cents or 47.8 cents because your value of property went up, and that is a good thing,” Dare said. “We held the tax bill. The rate has to fluctuate, and we are still collecting as much money as we did last year overall, so if you really want a tax break then go to Snow Hill [Worcester County] and talk to them about a tax differential instead of knit picking the little stuff that we are talking about here.”

The council voted 6-1 to approve the FY16 Budget on first reading with James in opposition. The budget is scheduled to receive its final approval on Monday evening of May 18.