P&Z Approves Upper Downtown Height Restrictions

OCEAN CITY – Over two months have passed since the
Planning and Zoning Commission decided to re-advertise a public hearing
concerning comprehensive rezoning and amendments to zoning regulations for
properties zoned R-2 and R-3a.

That meeting finally came to be Tuesday night and after a
brief hearing commissioners discussed the issues regarding height restrictions
in those zones and what they thought would be best, ultimately ending in two
motions that set separate height limits for both.

It was on Jan. 9 at another Planning and Zoning Commission
meeting when the topic was first brought up but it was not long after when the
commissioners felt more discussion and a larger consensus would be needed.

The two zoning districts, also known as the Upper Downtown
Design Overlay Zone District, were facing amendments that would reduce the
current maximum height of 50 feet and five-story buildings to a lesser height
that would be in accordance with the town’s Comprehensive Master Plan.

That plan, according to Blaine Smith, zoning administrator
for the Ocean City Department of Planning and Community Development, was put
into place to give that neighborhood some level of protection in the future
with existing buildings and to encourage redevelopment. Since then, some
property owners have done so, but in excess of up to five stories. Residents in
the downtown area said the larger buildings are out of character with the rest
of the area, something that the plan set out to protect in the beginning.

Jesse Houston, director of Planning and Community
Development, reintroduced the topic again Tuesday night, explaining the zones
in question as well as showing examples of what the city considers two-story
versus two-and-a-half-story buildings, and other heights, for clarification.

According to Houston, of the 423 buildings found in the
two districts, only seven exceed the previously proposed three-story limit. If
a height limitation was approved, Houston went on to say how the buildings
affected most would be newer ones as well as condominiums since redevelopment
becomes unappealing if developers are unable to maximize the profitability from
their property.

It was then that Houston presented a proposal that consisted
of two parts, the first of which stated that the area zoned R-1 would have a
height limit of three stories, or 35 feet. The second part stated that the
areas currently zoned R3-A would have a height restriction of four stories, or
40 feet.

First to speak out on his disapproval of the proposal was
local resident and property owner Joe Hall.

“I just don’t see the correlation between height and
positive reinvestment and redevelopment in my neighborhood,” the former city
councilman said in his opening remarks. “I feel that this would be one new
barrier for a person considering reinvesting and redeveloping their property to
not do that.”

Hall went on to say he feels the commissioners are better
suited to support and back up design guidelines already in place so as to allow
positive redevelopment through those avenues since he believes restrictions do
not make good incentives.

Another person against the height limitations was Joe
Moore, a local property lawyer for Williams Hammond Moore Shockley &
Harrison P.A., who was on hand to represent two of his clients who own property
in the areas in question.

Moore stressed that roof design is a key element in this
issue and that it should be implemented to its fullest in order to get the most
out of a building’s height. Supporting an idea mentioned earlier by
Commissioner Joel Brous, Moore said allowing a half story or a dormered living
space on top of an existing three- or four-story building would be ideal.

“What you’ve done is maintain the incentive to develop
because you haven’t just sliced a story off the top of a building, but you have
obligated that person in their redevelopment to be very aware of the character
of the neighborhood,” he said. “Reducing height is not the ultimate solution to
the character of a neighborhood, it’s what you do with what you have in the
height of a building that defines the character.”

The commissioners began to get on board with the idea that
essentially, under an altered proposal, a four-story building would be able to
have three and a half floors of living with a floor for parking, thus keeping
it at the desired 40 foot mark. The only change would be the allowance of the
half story within an existing roof.

However, debate over whether or not both zoning areas
should have the same height limitations arose when Commissioner Peck Miller
asked if the current proposal with the half story added on would be viable.
Commissioner Lauren Taylor said the three-and-a-half-story limitation in the
R-1 zone would ultimately suffer since owners along there would most likely not
use the first floor for parking and instead get all the living space they could
out of what they had.

Miller countered, saying how the lots in R-1 are smaller
than R3-A and that he thinks the two should be differentiated because of their
density levels.

“Regardless of whether you say people are or aren’t
building houses, they are going to redevelop if they can go to 3.5 – someone
will build a house down there in a heartbeat,” he said. “I think it’s a great
incentive and it will maintain the character of what we are trying to keep in
Ocean City for a long time.”

Commissioner Pam Buckley was on board with Miller and said
part of making the downtown area attractive is taking different areas and
keeping them in character with neighboring areas.

“You can have multi-unit buildings that are compatible
with the single family and I think that’s what we are looking for,” she said.

Miller then made a motion to restrict properties zoned
R3-A to 4.5 stories. The motion unanimously passed and a motion to restrict
properties zoned R-1 to 3.5 stories was made. This motion met a bit of
resistance from Brous and Taylor, although it still passed with a 4-2 vote.
Also included in the motions was OCDC’s recommendation to make voluntary
development incentives, such as widened sidewalks and setbacks to match
neighboring buildings, as mandatory.