Residents Win Early Battle In West OC Zoning Case

SNOW HILL – A West Ocean City community got the Worcester County Planning Commission on its side last week with the appointed officials refusing to endorse a change in a zoning deal that would allow nearly any kind of business on a parcel of land in their neighborhood.

Developer Jack Burbage went before the planning commission last week seeking a favorable recommendation on eliminating a condition of the 2004 rezoning, which permits an office building only on that site, to allow a retail use. The site in question is located on Route 50 east of Herring Creek on the east side of Waterview Avenue.

Three years ago, the Worcester County Commissioners approved the rezoning with eight conditions attached.

The conditions, worked out in consultation with the property’s neighbors, include setbacks, fencing, limited access points, retention of vegetation, addition of landscaping, and the single use.

Those eight requirements are essential to that zoning, said Phyllis Wimbrow, deputy director of Development Review and Permitting.

“The conditions are the only reason that zoning exists,” said Wimbrow. “They are not separate.”

According to Ed Tudor, Development Review and Permitting director, the County Commissioners said in 2004 that a commercial rezoning from residential zoning would not be appropriate without the conditions.

According to the county, changing any of those conditions constitutes a rezoning.

“I think it is a rezoning. It has been created as a specific zone for this property,” said Worcester County attorney Ed Hammond.

Tudor said, “You can’t just take the conditions off. You have to go back through the rezoning process.”

Burbage is in the process of selling the property to Todd Ferrante, owner of Park Place Jewelers, for a new retail store. Burbage said the change in the real estate market has made the office building project he had in mind impossible.

“Since 2003 he’s been trying to develop that property and has been unable to do so,” said Burbage’s attorney Hugh Cropper.

The developer asked to have two site conditions changed to permit his buyer to use the property for a retail store: a reduction in setbacks from 50 feet to 30 feet, and most importantly, the elimination of the use limitation.

Strong opposition from the neighboring property owners, who were originally consulted during the 2004 rezoning, overrode Burbage’s case at last week’s Planning Commission meeting.

“This is very much like a bait and switch,” said site neighbor J.L. Cropper, who described a recent fax from attorney Hugh Cropper that said the property would be changed back to residential.

“It seems to me the people are trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” said Leon Timmons, another site neighbor. “They made the deal. We made the deal. They should stick to it. …  I think everyone in the neighborhood is against what they’re trying to do here.”

Neighbor Daphne Hurley reiterated the comments expressed.

“It’s just about getting your contract and selling your property,” said Hurley. “I thought this was done with. I thought this was going to go the way it was supposed to go … It’s not being good friends.”

J.L. Cropper added, “In no way would our neighborhood ever have agreed to B-2 on that lot. There is nobody that has voiced an opinion favorable of this.”

Once the condition limiting commercial building to office space is removed, any of a wide variety of B-2 businesses may move into the site, the community fears.

“It’s a really special place to be. It won’t be anymore,” Hurley said, adding later, “It’s going to make a great neighborhood crappy.”

J.L. Cropper added, “If we have to fight this again, we will. It’ll be a tragedy to let that lot back to B-2.”

Attorney Hugh Cropper said, “Zoning isn’t a popular vote and it isn’t a plebiscite.”

Burbage said he understood the neighbors’ concerns. “I totally understand where the neighbors are coming from,” said Burbage.  “He [Ferrante] has talked to the neighbors, that’s my understanding from him.”

Reached yesterday, Ferrante said he has reached out to the community.

“I sent a letter out to all the neighbors and heard back from five or six of them,” Ferrante said. “They thought it was a nice fit for the neighborhood.”

J.L. Cropper, who said he speaks for most of the neighborhood, said no one he has spoken to has heard from Ferrante.

Ferrante said his plan to bring a Park Place Jewelers to that location would not result in a hardship for the nearby residents.

“I have limited hours and it’s different than something that’s open 24-7,” Ferrante said. “My business does not have a lot of in and out traffic.”

Planning Commission Vice President Brooks Clayville said he did not feel comfortable making a change to the zoning deal worked out with Burbage.

“I personally don’t feel like we’re a party to this,” said Clayville.       

The commission voted to make an unfavorable recommendation to the County Commissioners.