Historic Ocean City Church Undergoing Major Renovation Project; Steeple Removed This Week For Overhaul

The steeple of the St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church is pictured being worked on this week. Photo by Shawn Soper

OCEAN CITY — An historic downtown landmark, the oldest Catholic church in Ocean City, is getting a major facelift, including the restoration of its steeple, which was removed this week.

St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church, which dates back to 1877 and nearly the beginning of the resort itself, is undergoing a major restoration and renovation. On Monday, the ancient steeple and bell tower at the historic church on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Talbot Street was removed and is now undergoing a major restoration in a lot adjacent to the church.

The lot used to house the church rectory, but it was demolished last year as part of the larger renovation plan. St. Mary’s Star of the Sea-Holy Savior Parish Facilities Manager Tony Dicken said this week the removal of the steeple on Monday created a few anxious moments as a large crane carefully lowered the structure into the church yard below.

“As the crane was getting ready, it was completely calm,” he said. “The moment the crane started lifting off the steeple, the winds picked up and it was a little dicey for a few minutes. Once the steeple was lowered into the adjacent lot, the winds died back down and it was completely calm again.”

Removing and renovating the steeple is just part of the larger major renovation for the historic church in Ocean City. The larger project includes repairs to the roof and the structure itself, along with the restoration of its many stained glass windows. The old rectory was torn down, creating a vacant lot which will be repurposed by the parish.

“We’re going to create a garden of sorts with that lot,” said Dicken. “The old bell that was in the steeple for decades will be displayed in the yard and won’t go back in the steeple when it is renovated. Instead, we’re going to create a courtyard or garden with the historic bell on display and some nice landscaping.”

The parish also plans on creating a couple of parking spots on the now vacant lot to accommodate weddings and funerals, for example. Currently, wedding and funeral vehicles have to stop on Baltimore Avenue or along Talbot Street, often creating traffic issues. The parish also plans on expanding the existing church with an addition on the vacant lot.

“The plan is to attach a building to the existing sacristy,” said Dicken. “It’s just a modest little addition with bathrooms and a staging area for weddings and other special events.”

The St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church on Talbot Street dates back nearly as long as Ocean City itself, which was founded in 1874. In 1877, visiting clergy recognized the need for a Catholic ministry in the fledgling seaside town and a small cottage on Wicomico Street and the present day Boardwalk, now the site of Dolle’s Candy and the Cork Bar, was used as a ministry for visiting Catholics. In 1878, the Bishop of Wilmington arranged to purchase three lots for $100 each at Baltimore Ave. and Talbot Street and work on the new church began later that year.

In 1907, the church was expanded again with the steeple erected and the bell installed. St. Mary’s Star of the Sea became a mission church for the new St. Francis de Sales Parish in Salisbury. In 1927, the parish sold one of the original lots on Dorchester Street to the Ocean City Fire Company for just $10 and a new fire station was built on the site and remains in use today.

As the resort grew, so did the need for more and more space for the visiting Catholic population. In 1939, St. Mary’s Star of the Sea expanded again, doubling its capacity. In 1949, the diocese purchased the property at 17th and 18th streets, which would become home to the Holy Savior Parish. A centennial celebration for St. Mary’s Star of the Sea was held in 1977, marking the founding of the first Catholic church in Ocean City.

Nearly 140 years later, the historic church in the heart of the downtown area, which had fallen into disrepair somewhat over the years, is now undergoing another major renovation.

“This little church isn’t going anywhere,” said Dicken this week. “It means too much to, too many people.”

 

Seahawks Rout Warriors In Pressure Cooker

Decatur’s Keve Aluma goes up for a huge dunk in the first quarter against visiting Pocomoke on Tuesday. The big dunk brought the home crowd to its feet.
Photo by Shawn Soper

BERLIN – Perhaps the biggest high school basketball matchup of the season certainly lived up to the hype on Tuesday as the Stephen Decatur boys’ varsity team pulled away from Bayside South and Worcester County rival Pocomoke in an emotionally charged game in front of a packed house.

It was standing room only at Decatur on Tuesday with the Worcester County fire marshal in the building counting heads, which started arriving shortly after school closed hours before the highly anticipated contest between the two Bayside South heavyweights. Pocomoke had beaten the Seahawks in the first meeting back in late December, but the Seahawks got a shot at revenge and an opportunity to tie the Warriors in the conference standings on Tuesday.

By the time the national anthem and the pre-game introductions were over, the intensity in the gym reached a fever pitch as the standing-room-only crowd filled the bleachers and lined the sides of the court on both ends. Pocomoke got off to a fast start and led 6-0 about halfway through the first quarter. A reverse layup by Decatur’s Keyon Eley got the Seahawks on the board with a reverse layup at the 3:30 mark and a three-pointer by Darian McKenzie with under two minutes remaining gave Decatur its first lead at 10-9. Pocomoke scored on a buzzer beater at the end of the first quarter to take a 12-9 lead.

Decatur’s Keyon Eley works the ball from the corner during the second quarter of the big game against Pocomoke on Tuesday. Eley scored 20 points in the big Bayside South contest.                                                                 Photo by Shawn Soper

Decatur’s Keyon Eley works the ball from the corner during the second quarter of the big game against Pocomoke on Tuesday. Eley scored 20 points in the big Bayside South contest. Photo by Shawn Soper

The second quarter was all Decatur as the Seahawks went on a monster run, fueled by the raucous home crowd, to pull away from the Warriors. Kevon Voyles scored on the Seahawks’ first possession to tie the game and a jumper by Torrey Brittingham put Decatur on top for good at 14-12 just a minute into the second. Voyles assisted Eley with 6:45 remaining to put Decatur ahead, 16-12. On the Seahawks’ next possession, Brittingham fired a lazer from beyond half court to Eley under the basket and Eley converted the layup to put Decatur ahead 18-12 and extend the run to eight straight points as the crowd went wild. Decatur continued the run throughout the period, punctuated by a big dunk by Keve Aluma, which brought the home crowd to its feet. After a steal and a layup by Brittingham at the 5:02 mark, the Decatur run had reached 15-0 as the Seahawks extended their lead to 24-12.

After a frantic stretch of the second quarter, Pocomoke got on the board with just under five minutes remaining in the half to stop the bleeding. The Warriors turned up the defense and the Seahawks cooled off as Pocomoke cut the lead to 29-18 at the half. While Decatur had dominated the quarter, Poco-moke sustained the run and cut the lead to 11 at the intermission, and the big crowd sensed the game was far from over.

At the start of the third quarter, Aluma got a big dunk with just over seven minutes remaining to push the lead to 31-18. Ja’Quan Johnson scor-ed on a hard drive to the basket and followed that big play with a long three-pointer to extend Decatur’s lead to 39-25 with just under four minutes remaining in the third. A running jumper by Eley extended the lead to 41-26, but Pocomoke nailed a long three-pointer to cut the lead to 41-29 with a lot of time left in the third.

Aluma scored a fast-break layup after a steal to extend the lead to 43-28, but again, Pocomoke answered with a three-pointer to cut the lead to 43-31 with under two minutes remaining in the period. Pocomoke cut the deficit to under 10 points at 45-37 with 33 seconds remaining, but Eley made a layup at the buzzer to push the Seahawks’ lead back to 11 points at 48-37 at the end of three and nobody in the record crowd was going anywhere.

In the fourth, a layup by Eley followed by a big three-pointer from Voyles pushed the Decatur lead back to 54-38. When Voyles broke away for a layup with just four minutes remaining in the game to extend the lead to 56-38, the big crowd sensed the Seahawks were starting to pull away from the Warriors.

Pocomoke would not quit, however, and a three-pointer with just over three minutes remaining cut the lead to 57-41. A runner by Eley about a minute later extended the Seahawk lead to 60-45, and time was trickling away for the Warriors. Pocomoke began fouling the Seahawks down the final stretch, but Decatur knocked down enough of their free throws to keep the Warriors at bay and pulled away for the 68-47 win.

The big win by Decatur left both teams with just one conference loss, each having beat the other on their home courts. With a handful of regular-season games remaining, both Decatur and Pocomoke will likely win out, setting up a possible coin toss to settle the Bayside South championship.

Team Of Citizen Volunteers Helping With Beach Clean-Up Effort

In the days following the Winter Storm Jonas last weekend, crews of volunteers began methodically cleaning the beach of trash and debris in an effort to assist the city’s larger clean-up effort. Pictured above is a volunteer crew working on the beach near Somerset Street on Monday.

Photo by Shawn Soper

OCEAN CITY- It’s a tedious process to be sure and likely an endless one, but a brigade of citizen volunteers on this week began systematically cleaning the beach in Ocean City inch by inch, bottle cap by bottle cap and aluminum can by aluminum can in an effort to help the city’s Public Works crews, who are doing the heavy lifting.

The effort was originated by local resident Robert Banach, a beach enthusiast and photographer who was seen the Ocean City beach at its absolute best, and, following the weekend storm that ravaged the shoreline and dumped trash and debris as far as the eye can see, he has seen it at its worse. On Sunday, Banach through a Facebook message invited anyone who cared to join him to begin a methodical, in the sand, on your knees clean-up of the beach.

Volunteers were invited to join Banach and his crew on the beach between the Inlet and the remains of the pier, but with Public Works bulldozers moving mountains of sand in that area, Banach moved the brigade of citizen volunteers to the area just north of the pier building. Around noon on Monday, the volunteers started trickling in slowly at first, but shortly into the effort their ranks had swelled to around 20.

Armed with trash bags and gloves, and cold weather gear, the volunteers started the arduous task of cleaning trash from the debris-strewn beach. Off in the distance, massive bulldozers could be heard moving sand and removing the remains of the end of the pier from the beach, but on the north side of the pier building, the scene was more tranquil as the quiet chore of cleaning trash from the beach continued.

As he looked to the north at the miles of debris-strewn beach, Banach had come to grips with the enormity of the task and didn’t hold out any reservations about completing it in its entirety, but bag after countless bag of trash was coming off the strand.

“The Public Works crews are doing a tremendous job already and they have a monumental task ahead of them, but if we can help in any small way, we’ll feel like we’re making progress,” he said. “We’re only less than an hour into it and we’ve collected dozens of bags of trash. Every little bit helps and I feel like we’re already making a difference.”

Banach and the growing team of volunteers returned each day this week at noon and worked for maybe an hour or so. While the wind still had a little bite to it on Monday, the sun was warm and the conditions were not altogether unpleasing. By Tuesday, the weather had taken a decided turn for the better, and with the word spreading about the private efforts to clean the beaches, the ranks increased.

Despite some early morning rain on Wednesday, the skies cleared and the temperatures warmed and the effort continued. Banach said he hoped his group’s efforts would catch notice and become contagious, and by mid-week some groups struck out on their own and began systematically cleaning the beach where they lived and played in areas all over the resort.

“I chose noon because I know a lot of people are working and they’re busy, but maybe if they can give us a half an hour or so, it all adds up,” he said. “We’ll meet each day around noon near Thrasher’s and spread out from there. I know some people would like to clean the beach near where they live and where they frequent and that’s great too. Again, every little bit helps.”

Ocean City Bans Hoverboards On Boardwalk

The Mayor and Council this week approved a prohibition on hoverboards and other unauthorized motor vehicles on the Boardwalk over safety concerns. 
File Photo

OCEAN CITY- After months of debate, the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to prohibit the prolific and potentially dangerous hoverboards and other unauthorized motor vehicles on the resort’s Boardwalk.

After hoverboards started making an increased presence on the Boardwalk last summer, the Police Commission began a debate on how to define and regulate them in terms of other vehicles already permitted. The potential safety issues were researched and discussed at length at the Police Commission level, prompting Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro on Tuesday to recommend to the Mayor and Council an outright ban of hoverboards on the Boardwalk.

“The Police Commission has concerns and we share those concerns as far as the proliferation of these vehicles on our Boardwalk,” he said. “The hoverboard specifically we would like to see a prohibition on.”

The Police Commission reviewed the proliferation of hoverboards on the Boardwalk particularly on two major concerns. One is the erratic way in which they are often used, which can cause injury to the operator and to others. The second major concern is the possibility of the hoverboards being a fire hazard. While the OCPD deferred to the expertise of the fire department and the Fire Marshal on the latter, Buzzuro and the Police Commission did considerable research on the former before making a recommendation to ban the hoverboards on the Boardwalk.

“As my research has shown since this was debated at the Police Commission level, at least 100 universities and colleges have banned the hoverboards, Disney has banned hoverboards and New York City as a whole has banned hoverboards.”

The state of Maryland defines hoverboards essentially the same as Segways as an electric personal assistive mobility device, or EPAMD, with two non-tandem wheels, self-balancing, and powered by an electric propulsion system with a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour.

They are offered by a handful of different manufacturers and some have been deemed safer than others. Last year, the hoverboards were offered for sale by some retailers in the resort and for rent by some traditional rental businesses. Buzzuro said the research had shown issues with the design of some models in terms of a potential for fire, and on safety in general with hoverboards interacting with heavy pedestrian traffic and interacting with traditional non-motorized vehicles such as bicycles and surreys, for example with have become such a part of the Boardwalk landscape.

“It’s not only the construct and design, it’s also the issues with safety and the potential for fire,” he said. “So, all these things taken into consideration, the hoverboard itself and additional vehicles the police department would recommend at least a moratorium if not a prohibition as we go forward.”

With that said, Councilman Tony DeLuca made a motion to accept the chief’s recommendation and issue a complete prohibition of hoverboards and other non-permitted motorized vehicles on the Boardwalk.

“The Boardwalk is a pedestrian avenue and all motorized and non-motorized vehicles except those permitted by the town should be prohibited,” he said.

Bicycles, surreys, skateboards and Segways are permitted on the Boardwalk at all times from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the Friday before Memorial Day. After that the types of vehicles expressly permitted by the town on the Boardwalk see their hours reduced from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. of the same day.

While the vote was unanimous, Councilmember Mary Knight questioned how the message would get out and how hoverboard operators would learn of the prohibition.

“During the Police Commission hearings, did you discuss signage at all?” she said. “I know I see a lot of little kids out there with those little motorized cars on the Boardwalk. I know we don’t like more signs on the Boardwalk, but is there a possibility for signage?”

The Mayor and Council placated Knight’s concerns and said the existing signage would be altered or new signage would be created to let the public know about the ban on hoverboards.

“I just know enforcement will be a lot easier if there is a sign,” she said. “I honestly think some people won’t realize there is a ban when they see the Segways and they think they can have anything else up there with a motor.”

Multiple Agencies Continue To Probe Bomb Threats; Police Balancing Public’s Desire To Know With Covert Investigation

BERLIN — With more bomb threats received by local schools across Delmarva, a multi-agency investigation by authorities continues with vigor, according to officials.

On Wednesday afternoon, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies all along the east coast participated in a teleconference call to discuss the ongoing investigation. Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis said afterwards the teleconference was deemed “law enforcement sensitive” and there was nothing new to share other than that there is now a multi-state effort underway by many law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the bomb threats.

On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement explaining an expanded role for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the bomb threat investigations on the Lower Shore and across Maryland and beyond.

“Like last week, I have met with and remain in constant communication with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an effort to maintain a collaborative response to these threats,” the statement reads. “Today, I learned from the Baltimore field office of the FBI that they have now formed a Bomb Threat Task Force that will continue to work with local law enforcement in an effort to track down those responsible for these threats.”

While Lewis asserted the FBI was forming a task force specific to the bomb threat issue, FBI Baltimore Field Office spokesperson Amy Thoreson said on Tuesday no specific bomb threat task force was being formed at this time by the federal agency. It could be a slight communication breakdown or a matter of semantics, but clearly the Sheriff’s Office and the FBI were not on the same page in terms of defining the federal agency’s role in the investigation.

“We have not created a bomb threat task force,” said Thoreson on Tuesday. “We are aware of the threats and are looking into it. However, we know the more media attention the person or people doing this get, the more calls they are going to make to create more chaos. We are doing all we can to assist the local law enforcement agencies dealing with the threats, but we haven’t formed a task force.”

Lewis said later he was directed to a supervisory special agent assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in Baltimore, who confirmed the bomb threat cases were going to be assigned to their task force. He said the FBI requested a central contact person from the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office to provide them with all relevant information from the cases in Wicomico. Regardless of how the FBI’s role in the investigation is defined, the federal agency is clearly now in the middle of the probe on the shore and beyond.

“The FBI will assume the primary investigative responsibility for these cases,” the statement reads. “We in Wicomico County will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure the safety and well-being of our students and faculty members, while being mindful of our duty and responsibility to investigate these threats on a case-by-case basis.”

Throughout the last two weeks, almost every bomb threat made to a school has been met with an immediate evacuation. However, in at least one incident in Wicomico, students, faculty and staff were told to “shelter in place” while the facilities were scanned and the threats were deemed unfounded, which raised some eyebrows in the community. In his statement, Lewis defended the decision to keep students and staff in school while the threat was investigated.

“It’s so easy to second guess our collective decision regarding school evacuations when you aren’t privy to preliminary information,” the statement reads. “For investigative purpose, we cannot disclose all information learned during each of these cases. However, the information does assist us in making an informed decision as to ‘shelter in place or evacuate’ a school.”

Meanwhile, Worcester County has seen four bomb threats in the last week.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office issued its own statement after meeting with allied law enforcement agencies and the Board of Education, including Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson. Again, few details could be provided about the investigation, other than it was ongoing and aggressive.

“Sheriff [Reggie] Mason and Dr. Wilson have been working in concert to provide your children with a safe and secure environment,” the statement read. “Some questions you have cannot be answered as this is an ongoing investigation that spans several states. Every step is being taken to locate, identify and apprehend those responsible for these calls. The Sheriff’s Office, along with our allied partners in law enforcement, are working closely with our state and federal partners to bring this matter to a conclusion.”

The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office attempted to assure the public the safety protocols at the schools were constantly being reviewed while the bomb threat situation continued to evolve and promised proactive measures were being put in place.

“Immediately after [last] Tuesday’s call to Ocean City Elementary, Sheriff Mason met with his staff and those from surrounding agencies and our partners within the Board or Education to review our safety plans for each school,” the statement reads. “These plans are constantly being evaluated and implemented on a daily basis. Your children’s safety is our top priority. We will be conducting additional patrols of all of our schools and working with our local agencies to make sure your respective schools are protected as best we can.”

On Monday, Worcester County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Ed Schreier also said the allied law enforcement agencies are being proactive in an attempt to allay some of the fears in the community.

“We would not want to go into great detail due to the open investigation, but we are checking the schools,” he said. “Our priority is to help provide a safe environment for the community we serve and attempt to eliminate the fear some may have.”1

Meanwhile, local elected officials also weighed in this week on the evolving bomb threat situation. During a briefing with the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Tuesday, County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic outlined some of the law enforcement activities in response.

“Our sheriff’s department, our fire departments, school administrators, principals, teachers and other educational support staff are doing everything possible to ensure everyone’s children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews are safe in our schools,” he said. “Unfortunately, we live in a world today where no possible threat can be ignored and we have to treat every incident like it’s the one.”

Mitrecic said the two-week span of bomb threats locally and beyond were taking their toll on resources.

“The other part of this equation is the cost to the taxpayers,” he said. “The amount of overtime the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department has tied up in this already is just unbelievable.”

Mitrecic said the bomb threats had extended up and down the east coast, further taxing local, state and federal resources.

“We also have federal investigators involved, but you have to remember that this is something that stretches from Massachusetts to Georgia, so everybody is stretched and everybody is doing the best they can and we’re working as hard as we can to catch the person or persons responsible for this so we can go on with our lives.”

For his part, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan agreed all that could be done was being done.

“The unspeakable actions by some have caused our local Worcester County schools to be evacuated,” he said. “This is hard for any of us to imagine and I know both federal and local authorities are working diligently to resolve this issue and apprehend those responsible.”

Meehan promised Ocean City would lend any resources needed to the effort and praised those on the front lines.

“I’d like to acknowledge tonight the job well done by Worcester County, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department, the Maryland State Police, our Ocean City Fire Department and our volunteer division and our Ocean City Police Department and all those who have been involved at the county level,” he said. “They are out there to protect our most precious assets, our children and our young adults.”

Meehan said the school system and law enforcement had plans and protocols in place prior to the events of the last two weeks and they have worked effectively.

“They followed their procedures and were able to help get through this process, as difficult as it was, to protect the kids and work with the adults to make sure they felt everyone was safe,” he said. “It’s a very, very difficult and very, very emotional thing.”

Meehan said the training and drilling students and school staffers, along with the law enforcement agencies paid dividends in the face of a real crisis.

“In a very scary situation, everybody was well trained,” he said. “It lets you know all the training you receive and all of the exercises we all go through are very important when you have this unhappiness. They had all those protocols in place, and all of those students and those teachers did exactly what they were supposed to do.”

Meehan urged the community to stay united in the face of continued threats.

“I know our community is concerned,” he said. “We all need to stand together and support our schools, our law enforcement agencies, our parents and our kids so we can all move on from these difficult times.”

Resort Planners Endorse Roof Pitch Change After Hearing

OCEAN CITY — After a spirited public hearing, Ocean City planners this week endorsed a proposed code amendment that would permit a change in roof pitch heights in zoned mobile home parks in the resort.

The Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday held a public hearing on a proposed change to the code that would allow increases in roof pitch heights in designated mobile home parks throughout the resort. Technically speaking, the proposed change would allow roof pitches on residences in mobile home parks to be increased from the current 7/12 designation to a taller 9/12 height. In layman’s terms, the code change would allow roof pitches in mobile home parks to be increased by about 18 inches, which would not dramatically changes the appearance of the homes, but increase the amount of livable space and allow for more diverse design elements.

Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith explained the evolution of mobile homes in the town’s MH-zoned areas from single wide trailers several decades ago to double-wides, and then modular and ultimately stick-built residences. Lot sizes in the mobile home parks generally restrict the size of new homes with required setbacks and other requirements, but over the years, the roof pitches have inched steadily higher, creating more living space and, in some cases, extra bedrooms. Smith said the latest trend is Cape Cod-style homes essentially with one-and-half stories and changing the code to allow the 9/12 roof pitches would help accommodate that.

“Architecturally, if you’re doing Cape Cod-designed houses, 9/12 is more desirable,” he said. “The 9/12 is more permissive both visually and practically. Unless there is something unusual with the roof lines, and I don’t think there is, this is beneficial to the property owners.”
Smith further explained the code change would apply in all mobile home zones in Ocean City, but was simply enabling legislation. It would remain up to the individual homeowners associations to continue to govern roof pitch heights and other design features.

Planning and Zoning Commission President Pam Buckley said the evolution of home designs in the mobile home parks made the code change logical.

“Obviously, we’re seeing a product more readily available now,” she said. “At the same time, we want to protect the integrity of the communities. We’re dealing with the entire town of Ocean City, not just one part. They all have their own restrictions and they’re usually stronger than ours.”

Montego Bay Civic Association President Mike Donnelly told town planners a ballot had been sent out to property owners to gauge interest in allowing the code change although the results were not yet in.

“You can see how we’ve progressed,” he said. “In the last seven years, we’ve seen only five mobile homes come in, but there have been 60 new stick-built homes. In the by-laws established in 1969, nothing wider than a 12-foot mobile home was allowed, then we went to 14 feet, doublewides, modular and now stick-builts.”

However, Montego Bay resident Andrea Albrecht said when she became a property owner in 1969, most of the lots were 40 feet wide and included a two-car parking pad with some on-street parking available. However, with the steadily evolution from single-wide mobile homes to double-wides, then modular and finally stick-built homes, the livable space, and more importantly the number of bedrooms has increased in kind.

She said allowing the roof pitch change from the current 7/12 to 9/12 would only exacerbate the problem. She said the increased living space would add more residents and visitors, putting a strain on parking in the community and diminishing the quality of life for many long-time residents.

“That is an unintended consequence of the increased living space,” she said. “All of the new homes have walk-up stairs and increased habitable space. Homes in Montego Bay are allowed two bedrooms, but now we’re seeing three- four- and five-bedroom homes. What we’re seeing is people saying they have four-and five-bedroom houses, which would be fine if we were Caine Woods. The 9/12 pitch only creates more potential habitable space.”

While the debate centered largely on Montego Bay, Planning Commission attorney Will Esham, Jr. reminded those involved the code change would apply to all mobile home parks and each association would have the opportunity to make changes to their own covenants and restrictions to allow it if they desired.

“If you approve this, it’s not binding on any association,” he said. “This only gives the association the option to allow this.”

For their part, the planning commissioners supported the proposed code change and voted to forward a favorable recommendation to the council.

“Visually, it’s not make or break, but for livability, those 18 inches can make a huge difference,” said Commissioner Lauren Taylor. “Encouraging improvement of properties is clearly a good thing for Ocean City and the tax base.”

 

 

 

OC Applauds Tax Differential Study

OCEAN CITY — Worcester County officials this week signed off on an independent study to determine its own set of figures for Ocean City’s tax differential request, or tax setoffs to the resort for duplicated services.

In early December, the Ocean City Mayor and Council once again submitted its tax differential request to Worcester officials in advance of the county’s budget sessions this spring. Each year, the town of Ocean City seeks tax relief for municipal residents from Worcester County for services duplicated by the two jurisdictions. In simplest terms, tax differential is the cost of duplicated services such as police and fire protection, for example, that Ocean City provides for itself through its taxpayers, yet is often taxed at the same rate as residents in unincorporated areas of the county.

For years, Ocean City has requested tax differential from the county and has consistently been denied. Instead, the county makes unrestricted grants to the resort for a variety of uses in an attempt to offset the cost of tax differential. Ocean City and the county have often been at odds over the amount of duplicated services in question, but there is an effort underway to find some middle ground on the figures.

In December, Ocean City submitted its formal tax differential request to the county along with its independent study prepared by the Municipal and Financial Service Group that identified roughly $17 million in duplicated services provided by the resort. During the same debate last spring, the Worcester County Commissioners agreed to fund an independent study to determine its own ballpark figure on the cost of duplicated services.

On Tuesday, the County Commissioners approved the bid award for the tax offset study for Tischler-Bise at an amount just under $30,000. By Tuesday night, County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, who represents Ocean City, reported the news of an apparent détente on the tax differential issue to the Mayor and Council. As a former Ocean City Councilman, Mitrecic has been on the front lines of the tax differential battle over the years and has continued to advocate for an equitable solution since arriving in Snow Hill.

“The county hired Tischler-Bise to do its own tax differential study today, which is a huge victory for me,” he said. “We’re supposed to have this study back within 90 days.”

Even more so than his personal satisfaction in urging the county to conduct its own independent tax differential study, Mitrecic said it represents a potential thaw of sorts on the long-standing issue between the jurisdictions.

“This is a huge win for Ocean City,” he said. “Before I was down there, they wouldn’t even have considered doing this. The fact we’re having a study done and it’s been funded, I’m just really happy about it. I feel like I’ve gotten something done today.”

It remains to be seen if the county’s study conducted by Tischler-Bise mirrors the figures determined by Ocean City’s study, but the two independent studies should provide a framework from whence a middle ground could be determined. Mitrecic predicted the county’s study could be an eye-opener for the county commissioners.

“Even if the numbers don’t come back at the same level Ocean City’s study did, there has to be some inequity in the way the county grants the municipalities funds,” he said. “We’ll get that back in 90 days before we really get into the next budget.”

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, a long-time advocate for tax equity for the resort, agreed the county’s study could provide a baseline with which to work.

“Thank you for really moving forward with this initiative,” he said. “We need this study for tax differential so we have something to compare and move forward with finding a more equitable solution.”

 

OC Council Approves Longer Contract For Free Special Events Aimed At Providing ‘Goodnight Kiss’ For Visitors

OC Council

OCEAN CITY — The summer-long fireworks displays, laser shows, concerts and other free special events will continue this year and beyond after Ocean City officials voted to extend the contract for the promoter of the activities.

The Mayor and Council last week voted to extend the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) annual $300,000 contract to produce the free, value-added special events such as the popular fireworks displays, laser shows, concerts on the beach and at other various venues, Sundaes in the Park and many others through 2017. TEAM Production’s Bob Rothermel, who, along with Jack Hennen, produces many of the value-added special events that have become so popular during the summer and throughout the shoulder seasons, was seeking an extension through 2018, but after considerable debate, the council voted to formally approve the contract extension through 2017 with at least tacit support for an extension through 2018 and beyond.

Rothermel explained the $300,000 investment in TAB has been typically extended in one-year increments, which has somewhat curtailed TEAM Productions’ efforts to secure long-term commitments from private sector sponsors and to take advantage of the cost savings associated with longer-term private contracts. He said TEAM’s successful track record warranted an extension beyond just one year and would help the public-private partnership to explore new special events.

“We’ve been doing shows for a great number of years and brought two of the largest events to Ocean City with Cruisin’ and Endless Summer,” he said. “We hope to continue that trend and explore the different dynamics.”

Rothermel said the fireworks displays, laser shows and concerts on the beach send visitors to the resort home each night with a “wow” factor and keeps them coming back.

“When we first started working with TAB, we were looking for events that put an exclamation point on a visitor’s stay in Ocean City, whether it was a week, a weekend or even a day,” he said. “We believe we’ve done that with the season-long series of special events.”

Rothermel explained the added value, free special events are held almost nightly from Memorial Day to Labor Day with 90 separate events on 41 event-days.

“In the promotion industry, we talk about giving them the ‘goodnight kiss’ where we entertain them by day and send them home at night with an exclamation point,” he said. “These special events, from the fireworks displays to the laser shows, do that for visitors to Ocean City.”

Rothermel said the plans for 2016 include a continuation of last year’s schedule along with two more dates for fireworks displays at Northside Park in conjunction with the popular Sundaes in the Park event, and one more date for beach fireworks. In addition, TEAM would like to explore a beach dance party, further exploration of a 50-and-over series of special events catered to mature visitor and a roving light display moved around the resort creating great photo opportunities for visitors.

“An extension of the contract will allow us to move forward with what we’re already doing and explore new events,” said Rothermel. “We have the will and the experience to show off our greatest assets with ongoing events and new events.”

Councilman Doug Cymek agreed TEAM’s special events were highly successful and made a motion to extend the contract through 2018.

“You have done such a tremendous job over the years,” he said. “I’m confident you will continue to represent Ocean City well.”

However, while supporting the notion of a three-year extension for TEAM Productions, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out future budget constraints or changing economic conditions made an extension beyond 2017 potentially challenging.

“We can collectively say we intend to fund TAB at $300,000 in the upcoming budget,” he said. “I don’t think we can obligate the Mayor and Council a year from now with another $300,000.”

Cymek’s motion was amended to fund the $300,000 through TAB for fiscal year 2017 with support for an extension through 2018 “subject to an approved appropriation. The motion carried with a 6-1 vote with Dare in opposition.

“That will assist us in making a long-term commitment,” said Rothermel. “We’ve always done this one year at a time and we’ve never been able to keep the ball rolling with a commitment from our private sponsors.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the extension through 2017 would meet TEAM Productions’ needs to move forward with plans for new special events while not hamstringing the town.

“I think what Bob presents here is a seasonal package of special events that’s commendable,” he said. “I certainly understand we support it to 2018, but it’s tough to bind a future council beyond that. The added value, free events have really helped build a reputation in Ocean City.”

Ocean City Council Approves Median Fence Design; New Highway Barrier Expected For Summer ‘17

Although it will not be in place until next year, the Ocean City Mayor and Council approved this design for a one-mile stretch of Coastal Highway from the Roland E. Powell Convention to about 60th Street. Rendering courtesy of SHA

OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Mayor and Council this week approved the final design for a dune-style fence down the center of the median for the first phase of a project that will eventually stretch from one end of the resort to the other.

The Ocean City Transportation Committee met on Tuesday morning with State Highway Administration (SHA) officials to discuss the final design for the proposed Pedestrian Safety and Connectivity Project for the median along Coastal Highway from Convention Center Drive to Route 90. The project includes enhanced lighting, bus lane adjustments and perhaps most importantly, a physical barrier of sorts in the center of the median to deter pedestrians from crossing mid-block and instead encourage them to use the marked intersections. Coastal Highway is officially Maryland Route 528 and the project will be fully funded by the state.

The Transportation Committee approved the design on Tuesday morning and forwarded a favorable recommendation to the full Mayor and Council. On Tuesday afternoon, the Mayor and Council saw the same SHA presentation and unanimously approved the final design.

The transportation committee in December got a first look at the undulating fence that included vertical slats spaced at intervals that mirrored Ocean City’s iconic dune fencing on the beach. Committee members at that time liked the design, but voiced concerns the gaps between the vertical slats would encourage pedestrians to attempt dangerous mid-block crossings.

SHA officials went back to the drawing board and returned this week with a similar design that now includes a horizontal top rail and a bottom rail close to the ground. Also included will be appropriate landscaping around the dune-style median fence that will retain its aesthetic charm while providing a practical solution to the pedestrian safety problem.

“It’s a dune-style fence in the median that would blend in with the landscaping,” said SHA Project Manager John Webster. “The slats extend above the top rail to discourage people from attempting to cross.”

SHA officials presented two alternatives for the median fence, including the custom-designed dune-style fence and a more generic prefabricated fence, each of which had its pros and cons. For example, the prefabricated version would have been cheaper and a little more expeditious, while the custom design comes with a higher price and likely a slower pace for completion. In the end, however, the transportation committee and ultimately the Mayor and Council agreed the slight cost differences and timetable variations did not trump the aesthetic and practical value of the custom-designed fence.

“The pre-fab reminds me of a prison,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “The custom fence looks like a classy family resort.”

The approved design includes vertical slats spaced at intervals which are louvered like window blinds at 45-degrees to allow motorists to see across both sides of the highway. The initial design was similar, but gave the impression of a solid wall from certain angles.

Councilman Dennis Dare said the new design accomplished the goals of keeping the vistas along the highway open while presenting an impression of a barrier for pedestrians.

“The last time, the dune-style fence really fit the resort, but as you go down the highway it looked solid,” he said. “This 45-degree change solves that problem. As for the pre-fab, it doesn’t look like a prison, but it does look like a giant bike rack.”

The section from Convention Center Drive to Route 90 was chosen for the initial phase because historically it has seen the most pedestrian-vehicle collisions. Ultimately, the dune-style fence will run down the center of the median for the entire length of the “This is a continuation of our pedestrian safety initiatives and we’re really vested in that campaign,” he said. “This is the first area we’d like to address and deter people from mid-block crossings and direct them to the crosswalks.”

While everyone agreed the dune-style custom fence trumped the generic prefabricated fence in terms of aesthetic value, Councilmember Mary Knight questioned whether the first option could curtail progress on the entire length of the median.

“The custom fence is so much nicer,” she said. “Would it be cost prohibitive and prevent us from doing the next section? If we do this, would we have to wait another four years to do the next section?”

Drewer explained the section from Convention Center Drive to Route 90 would be done first, with future sections likely moving southward because that is typically where the most pedestrian traffic is. He said the overall project could be done in five or six, or even 10 sections, depending on the funding and construction schedule.

“We would want to keep the project moving forward,” he said. “We can get out in front of it with the fence sections and materials because you have to remember the construction windows are pretty tight.”

Dare likened the fence project to the decades old SHA project to create the median in the center of Coastal Highway decades ago in terms of its transformation of the appearance of the resort.

“The median was done in small phases and the reasoning for doing it was different,” he said. “Back then, Coastal Highway was asphalt from curb to curb with a suicide lane down the center. The median project transformed the look of Ocean City more than anything that was ever done. This fence is going to be a focal point and it needs to look great.”

Meehan told a story about the decades-old median project to illustrate the importance of moving the fence project into future phases.

“The median project was a major undertaking and it was very disruptive with a maze of orange barrels for about four or five years,” he said. “People got tired of looking at them, and when we got down to the last section, we asked if there was any way we could skip a year because everybody was tired of looking at those barrels. SHA said ‘sure, you can skip a year,’ but the funding went away for like 10 years. The moral of the story is we need to keep it going once it starts.”

When the Mayor and Council approved the final design later on Tuesday afternoon, it set in motion a timetable that would have the first phase completed in advance of the 2017 season. The next step would be a public meeting this spring, followed by planning and engineering, bidding and a final Notice to Proceed sometime late in 2016. Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins pushed for an expedited timetable with the notice to proceed moved up if possible.

“If you push for October, you could have it ready for early spring 2017,” he said. “That would be ideal.”

SHA officials said completion date prior to the 2017 summer season was ambitious, but Dare agreed pushing for an earlier timetable would expedite the project.

“That’s a target date so the public has some expectations of when it will be completed,” he said. “The purpose of this is public safety, so it’s important to aim for the start of the season. We’re going to learn a lot from this first project and that will make it easier for the second project and beyond.”

Ocean City Decides On Latest Beach Play Structure

This two-piece play structure should be in place by this summer at Somerset Street. Submitted Photo

OCEAN CITY — Ocean City officials this week approved a play structure for the beach at Somerset Street with “Wally the Whale” emerging, literally and figuratively, from the narrowed-down list of options.

The Mayor and Council on Tuesday approved “Wally the Whale” as the newest addition to the downtown beach at Somerset Street adjacent to the Boardwalk area. The play structure includes a whale’s head emerging from the sand on one end and its tail protruding from the beach on the other end. It includes barnacle-like fixtures on the head and tail allowing kids, and presumably adults, to climb on the structure.

In 2013, the town removed the long-standing wooden playground equipment, or “beach toys,” for a variety of reasons including potential safety hazards and some of the late night activities by some for whom the toys were not intended. In the two years since, the town has wrestled with replacing the beach toys from a financial and practical standpoint.

Two years ago, the newest addition was the dinosaur bones structure at 3rd Street, which became an Internet sensation last fall when Mayor Rick Meehan’s pictures of the bones emerging from the sand during Hurricane Joaquin and the associated Nor’easter went viral. The dinosaur bones structure has appeared to achieve the desired results, but the town continued to seek more beach play structures.

While all agree the beach toys offer a nice alternative and free amenity for families on the beach and Boardwalk, replacing the decades-old equipment has been challenging. To that end, the Recreation and Parks Committee last fall put out a request for proposal with a budget of around $26,000. What came back were six proposals from three companies, each with their own pros and cons.

The play structures will have to be removed each fall and reinstalled each spring due to state building limit line laws on the beach and from a safety and practicality standpoint. The new structure will also have to endure often less than optimal conditions with the salt air and wind-blown sand, for example.

“In addition to having challenges with our environment, it has to come off the beach each year,” said Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito. “Anything new will have to be removed and re-installed each season.”

The Recreation and Parks Committee reviewed the proposals and winnowed the list to three preferred alternatives, which they presented to the Mayor and Council for approval on Tuesday. One of the proposals featured a jungle gym-type set-up in the form of a sea turtle with slides, ladders and climbing features. A second alternative called the “Jupiter” featured a cable-tension net-climbing structure.

In the end, “Wally the Whale” was chosen for a variety of reasons, including its aesthetic value, the practicality of removing it and storing and the relative ease with which the Public Works Department can clean the beach around it.

“It fits the beach scene and will be ideal to play on, but won’t have kids and families staying for hours because we want them back on the Boardwalk and all that has to offer,” said Petito. “It also offers a less complicated removal and could be stored easily. In addition, it’s just cute and could lend itself to a unique photo opp.”

After some debate, Councilman and Recreation and Parks Committee member Wayne Hartman made a motion to approve the whale play structure, which could be in place by mid-May.

“The others might seem like a better value up front, but the maintenance will make up the costs in the long term,” he said.

The whale structure came in just under the $26,000 budgeted and its cost could be augmented through a private-public partnership. Throughout the last year, several companies and individuals have come in with donations totaling $4,500, including $2,000 from Greg Shockley and Shenanigans, $1,000 from Tow Boat US, $500 from the OCDC and $500 each from Councilman Doug Cymek and former Councilman Brett Ashley.