Council Eyes Changes To Project Review Process

OCEAN CITY – The Mayor and Council unanimously agreed Tuesday to continue discussion over major and minor changes in the planning and zoning community development process, agreeing that changes to the current code need to be made.

The months of contention surrounding the Rivendell project as well as the debate over what should have been considered major and minor changes to the site plans, have spurred the Mayor and Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission to reevaluate the current process.

The Rivendell project, to the dismay of many, slid by with an extra five feet in height last month, after the builder and architect admitted that the change was made without the approval of the Mayor and Council or the Planning and Zoning Commission. Other changes were also made post final site plan approval, leaving the Mayor and Council, among others, questioning why they weren’t consulted on what they deemed major changes.

Jesse Houston, director of Planning and Community Development, explained that section 110-184 of the code guides the administration of major and minor site plans. The problem is that some of the language defining a major or minor change is fuzzy and indefinable. Houston noted that phrases such as, “has no appreciable affect on surrounding property,” or, “does not change the general character,” could be interpreted in different ways.

Houston explained that if the Mayor and Council wish to make changes to the current code, the Planning and Zoning Commission would need to hold a public hearing and then forward a recommendation to the Mayor and Council.

Houston also pointed out the code has read that way for nearly 30 years with the Rivendell project being the first project to cause issue.

Councilwoman Nancy Howard suggested the Planning and Zoning Commission hold a public hearing to discuss the current code and determine what are considered major and minor changes. 

Councilman Jay Hancock suggested that the council give some sort of guidance prior to a public hearing.

The issue of who should have the final say also arose, with the council agreeing that as the people answering to the repercussions of projects, they should have the final say.

“I think that any building approved by the Mayor and Council should come back to us with changes,” said Councilman Jim Hall, noting that any changes should also be accompanied with a valid explanation.

The Rivendell project caused unrest when the Mayor and Council made specifications for sidewalk width and approved other aesthetic aspects that were later changed without approval of the Mayor and Council.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas noted another lesson learned from the Rivendell project, referring to the two-part, piecemeal approval of the building and then later, the restaurant. Pillas suggested projects be presented in their entirety from the beginning.

The council agreed to schedule a joint meeting with the Planning and Zoning Commission to discuss the points of interest, advising Houston and Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith to outline their concerns and suggestions to be presented as well. The council voted unanimously to defer the issue to commission for a public hearing and to have the recommendations returned to the Mayor and Council for final review.