Residential Vs. Commercial At Heart Of Ongoing Debate

OCEAN CITY – A public hearing will be held Tuesday, May 13, in an effort to gain public input and discuss commercial development in the town as well as residential development in commercially zoned areas.

“How do we encourage or require commercial development in commercially zoned districts, or, do we limit residential development in commercially zoned districts,” said Director of Planning and Zoning Jesse Houston this week to the Planning Commission.

The boom in residential development over the past several years has left many people concerned over the decline in commercial development in the town, reported Houston. In an effort to plan for another future development boom and prevent loss of commercial space in town, Houston recommended ways to hinder the decline in commercial development.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Houston, pointing out that once a condominium building is built where a commercial space could have been developed, it could be many years, if ever, before commercial space could open up there again.

Houston also noted the unique situation in Ocean City. Typically, commercial space holds a higher value than residential. The converse has occurred in Ocean City, however, where residential space has trumped commercial space in value over the past few years.

“The comprehensive plan encourages mixed-used development,” said Houston.

Objectives of the comprehensive plan include retaining a healthy mix of commercial to support the needs of residents, to provide a full array of commercial services, and to encourage mixed-use north of 17th Street.

In June 2003, public hearings were held on the issue, resulting in a recommendation from the Planning Commission to the Mayor and City Council. Ultimately the recommendation called for zoning changes to encourage more mixed-use development. The commission also concluded that commercial property was being developed with residential uses to the detriment of the town.

“The strategy was to make residential development less attractive,” said Houston.

In an effort to promote commercial use, a reduction of off-street parking for commercial uses was developed as an incentive.

Other incentives are also in affect with the special bayside regulations, which aim to encourage mixed-use, noted Houston. Additional height can be gained if builders compromise by meeting regulations in other areas such as setbacks, parking, shadows and bulk.

Houston tasked the Planning Commission with considering whether or not the town needs more commercial space and if so, how to meet that objective.

Currently, 404 of the 602 acres, or two-thirds, of the commercially zoned land in Ocean City are being used as commercial space, reported Houston.

The question still rises however, said Houston, as to whether the code should require commercial uses in commercial districts and whether the code should control commercial density. To address both of the issues, Houston recommended requiring a minimum and maximum floor area ratio.

Houston also questioned how to address residential development in commercial zones.

“Is the requirement for commercial development enough or do we need to consider reducing the residential density to further encourage commercial, and discourage residential, development,” questioned Houston.

Planning Commission members weighed in on the issue, questioning when regulations become too restrictive, and, as a result, detrimental to the town as a whole.

“I’m not aware that there’s a huge demand of commercial space un-met,” said Commission member Lauren Taylor. “You can’t make people build something that nobody wants or is going to use.”

Taylor questioned whether forcing commercial space would be viable for the town, pointing out that the result could be vacant buildings.

“To a certain point, a residential development is a commercial development for us,” pointed out Commission Chairperson Pamela Buckley.

Houston asserted the importance of having the foresight for what happens when all of the town’s commercial space is filled with residential.

Commission member Joel Brous suggested providing more incentives, rather than regulations.

The recommendations and ideas will be reviewed at next week’s public hearing.