Downtown Height Restrictions Approved

OCEAN CITY- With the intent of preserving the old town
charm of the downtown area in Ocean City, the Mayor and Council on Tuesday
approved new maximum height limitations on new development in vast areas of the
oldest section of the resort.

During their regular work session on Tuesday, the council
approved the proposed maximum height limitations by a 5-2 vote, although some
questions were raised about various components in the zoning code amendment
including the pitch of roofs and dormers allowed and at least one concern the
amendment as written could have a reverse effect compared to what is desired
for the downtown area.

The old town area of Ocean City was essentially divided
into four zones in which the new height restrictions would apply, each with its
own distinct differences in the zoning code amendment. Town planners took a
block-by-block survey of the existing buildings in the target area, which runs
roughly from North Division Street to 15th Street, and from
Baltimore Ave. to St. Louis Ave. or Edgewater Ave. depending on the area.

For example, the designated R-2, or medium residential
zone, runs from Philadelphia Ave. to Edgewater Ave. and from north of 3rd
Street to 15th Street. The R-2 zone will see the most stringent
changes in the code with the current height limitation of five stories reduced
to three stories upon redevelopment.

The R-3, or moderate residential, zone runs from north of
third street to 15th Street between Baltimore Ave. and Philadelphia
Ave. In the R-3 zone, the maximum height allowed for new development will
change from the existing five stories to four stories.

In the Downtown Mixed Use, or DMX, area from North
Division to 3rd Street between Baltimore Ave. and Philadelphia Ave,
there will be no change in the current maximum height allowed, which is four
stories. However, in the DMX zone from North Division to 3rd Street
between Philadelphia and St. Louis Ave., the new maximum height allowed will be
reduced from the current four stories to three stories.

It is important to note in all of the affected districts,
projects will be allowed to take advantage of a section in the town code that
allows for the use of attics or dormers when a building is designed in
compliance with the established downtown design standards or the upper downtown
design standards. Effectively, the provision allows new construction to gain an
extra half-story by complying with approved design standards.

Pitched roofs and dormers are encouraged in the town’s
design standards and the comprehensive plan because of their aesthetic value in
the downtown area, but their allowance in the height restriction code change
caused heartburn for some on the council. For example, Mayor Rick Meehan said
the high-pitched roofs on some new construction appear to fly in the face of
the intent of the zoning code change.

“Is there a maximum pitch requirement anywhere in here?”
he said. “We’re getting four-story buildings that end up being taller than
five-story buildings because of the extreme pitch of the roofs.”

Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith explained pitched roofs
and dormers are encouraged in new building design in the downtown area. “We
wanted more architectural features in new buildings down there,” he said.
“Pitched roofs and dormers accomplish that.”

Nonetheless, Meehan urged there be some consideration
given to the pitch of the roofs on new buildings. After considerable
discussion, a motion was approved to include language limiting pitch. “To do
this right, we really need to limit the pitch on some of these new buildings,”
said Meehan.

Ironically, most of the existing buildings in the downtown
area are already well within the proposed height limitations even before the
code change was approved. For example, of the 423 structures in the surveyed
area, 222 are two stories high, 27 are one-and-a-half stories high, and 72 are
just one story high. Just 58 are three-stories, while five are four stories
tall and just two are currently five stories tall.

Councilman Jay Hancock said the code change could have the
undesired side effect of encouraging new buildings of greater height in an area
where the majority of the buildings are already two stories high or even lower.

“I’m concerned we might get the reverse effect,” he said.
“Most of the structures along Baltimore Ave. are already three stories or less.
This could encourage more redevelopment. We’ll end up tearing down old
buildings that still have a lot of life left in them. Some of these nice old
buildings might end up in the landfill because of this.”

Hancock further said the proposed code change could end up
changing the character of the neighborhoods downtown, which is the opposite of
the intent. “Bigger and higher is not always better,” he said. “When you go to
almost five stories, you change that drive along Baltimore Ave. Some of these
are historical treasures for the town of Ocean City.”

After considerable debate, the council voted 5-2 to
approve the zoning code change, with Hancock and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas