OC Planning Commission Reviews Growth Trends

OCEAN CITY — Ocean City planners last week reviewed a couple of pending documents that will chart the future direction of growth in the resort.

The Ocean City Planning Commission received update from staff on two documents in the works, including the 2014 annual report to the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) and the revision of the resort’s comprehensive plan, which should be completed in 2016 after a lengthy process. Planning and Development Director Bill Neville presented the updates to the commission, which voted to move forward with sending the annual report to the MDP.

Neville explained the annual MDP report provides an update to the state on the town’s growth and development each year. The report includes a checklist of sorts provided by the state and filled in by a community’s planners to chart new growth and redevelopment.

The checklist is somewhat generic in that it is statistic-driven, and doesn’t always paint an entirely accurate picture of growth, especially in a unique community like Ocean City. For example, Neville said the MDP considers Ocean City as a rapid growth area in terms of year-round residential population, but the resort’s population has remained fairly consistent in recent years.

“In terms of population trends, the state thinks we’re trending on an upward curve,” he said. “Actually, we’ve been at flat growth for several years. The population and the economy have reached an equilibrium of sorts.”

Neville pointed to the number of residential permits applied for last year to illustrate the point. The MDP document sets different parameters based on the number of residential permits pulled and Ocean City didn’t reach the lowest threshold.

“We had 31 residential permits last year,” he said. “When it’s less than 50, the state lets you speed through the process a little quicker.”

Of course, Ocean City is currently in a period of great commercial growth with several major hotel projects underway or in the works along with other considerable redevelopment projects. However, the annual report to the MDP doesn’t always reflect that.

“The community is at a point where reviewing the items on a check list from the Maryland Department of Planning doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Neville. “We have a lot of redevelopment opportunities, but that doesn’t necessarily show up in the state’s checklist. Our redevelopment determines our real growth potential.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said not only are more hotel rooms and condos coming on line, but most are much bigger than their predecessors.

“We’re going from units that are 500, 600 or 700 square feet to units that are much larger,” she said. “Now, we’re seeing units as big as 2,700 square feet and the average is around 1,600 square feet, so that’s where there is a lot of growth without necessarily showing up as growth. At an average of 1,800 square feet, a lot of people live in smaller homes than that.”

In terms of a revised comprehensive plan for Ocean City, Neville said a similar situation is playing out.

“The current format may not be the best moving forward,” he said. “It should tell the story of the community in plain terms and explain why we’re doing this update. As we get into the story-telling exercise, a lot of the information will come out of our financial report. It should be a consistent message with the other documents presented by the city.”

Neville said the comprehensive plan differs from the town’s strategic plan, which is proceeding on a parallel course.

“The strategic plan talks about the priorities of the government for the city, but doesn’t tell the entire story,” he said. “The comprehensive plan should show how you deal with the county and state and what happens outside the community.”

While certain areas of the resort are erased, rebuilt and erased again over the next decade or so, the comprehensive plan should outline the predicted growth and redevelopment.

“The comprehensive plan should lay out the best plan for redevelopment for the next 10-15 years,” he said. “That’s the challenge.”

Neville said the annual report to MDP and the comprehensive plan process has revealed a fairly stable year-round population in Ocean City despite the rapid growth in other sectors. For years, the trend has been for many area residents to own businesses, work and recreate in the resort, but live in other areas outside city limits, resulting in a stable, if not stagnant, year-round population.

However, that trend has shown signs of reversing with more and more locals moving back into the resort, a trend that could impact future residential growth.

“We really have to keep an eye on that,” said Planning Commissioner Peck Miller. “People that moved out of the city for a variety of reasons to West Ocean City or Berlin, for example, are moving back into Ocean City.”

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