Council Seeking Restrictive Option On Sex Shop Zoning

OCEAN CITY – Discussion surrounding sexually-oriented businesses continued this week at a work session of the Mayor and Council with another presentation of zoning possibilities in Ocean City.

City Planner Jesse Houston, presented the Mayor and Council with four different scenarios for zoning, explaining that the intent is not to suppress the expansion of sexually-oriented businesses, but rather to protect the surrounding community.

Sexually-oriented businesses were not an issue in Ocean City until last spring when an adult retail store, SexStyle, opened on 137th Street, sending numerous residents into a panic over the thought of similar businesses following in suite. As a result, a public hearing was held on May 1 before the Planning and Zoning Commission to garner the thoughts and opinions of residents. The hearing resulted in a recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission to place a moratorium on sexually-oriented businesses until the issue could be properly dealt with. One week later, the Mayor and Council passed the moratorium.

The issue resurfaced on Sept. 11 at a work session as the moratorium neared its end. At that time, Houston presented the Mayor and Council with two scenarios revealing the areas of town that could warrant the so-called sex shops. After going back and forth over whether one scenario was too restrictive on the businesses or whether the other allowed for too much area for sexually-oriented businesses, the City Council agreed to extend the moratorium and to have Houston return with further scenarios. The moratorium was extended until Feb. 1 or until an appropriate ordinance is passed.

Houston presented four scenarios this week, including the two original scenarios presented to the Mayor and Council in September.

Each scenario calls for a buffer between the sexually-oriented businesses and certain types of existing uses. All four scenarios call for a 150-foot buffer between the sexually-oriented business and residential uses. Each scenario varies in the amount of buffer distance between sexually-oriented businesses and public and private facilities. Public facilities are areas such as parks, beaches, Boardwalks, or churches. Private facilities are areas such as miniature golf courses, arcades, or amusement parks.

Houston explained that each scenario had two maps depicting both the actual area calculated and the expanded area. Houston pointed out that because many of the actual areas calculated didn’t yield viable areas for business, they were expanded slightly.

The first scenario, the most restrictive scenario, calls for a 600-foot buffer between a sexually-oriented business and any private or public facility. The expanded area would yield 26.5 acres for sexually oriented businesses, 1.2 percent of developable land, and 6.5 percent of commercially zoned land.

Scenarios two, three, and four, expand respectively on the amount of land available to sexually-oriented businesses. Scenario two calls for a 450-foot buffer from public and private facilities, scenario three calls for a 600-foot buffer from public facilities and a 300-foot buffer from a private facility, and scenario four calls for a 300-foot buffer from both private and public facilities. Scenario four, the least restrictive, would result in 55 acres of available land compared to the 26.5 acres that would result from scenario one.

“I personally would like to go with the most restrictive,” said Councilwoman Nancy Howard.

However, Howard pointed out the possibility that being too restrictive could result in a lawsuit against the town.

Howard asked City Solicitor Guy Ayres what he considered to be the most beneficial scenario for the town from a legal standpoint. Ayres explained that each scenario would have to be examined more closely. He pointed out that some areas, even on the expanded maps, are still not viable for business. For example, the parking lot of the Gold Coast Mall, a potential zoning area, would not be viable for business.

Councilman Lloyd Martin questioned what would happen if private facilities, such as arcades, were added in areas zoned for sexually-oriented businesses, asking whether the sexually-oriented business would still be allowed there. Houston explained that it would not have any affect because the ordinance would be based on the businesses that were standing when the ordinance was passed, not after.

“We’ve got 1,500 business licenses and there’s only one of these types of stores,” said Mayor Rick Meehan, pointing out that one sexually-oriented business does not require the city to create a large amount of space for more sexually oriented businesses.

Meehan also agreed that they should proceed with the most restrictive scenario. 

The council unanimously agreed to have Ayres examine the most restrictive scenario. The issue will come back before the Mayor and Council at a work session after further review.