Council, Planners Discuss Development, Growth Issues

OCEAN CITY – At a joint meeting of the Mayor, City Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission this week, completed, current and future efforts ranging from comprehensive rezoning to enhanced shadow controls were addressed, in an effort to reach a consensus on current issues in the town.

Planning Director Jesse Houston highlighted a few of the completed items on the town’s agenda. The items included the development of a height limit for residential properties between Baltimore and St. Louis avenues, an increase in the minimum parcel size for planned overlay districts on the bayside from 90,000 square feet to five acres, the development of special bayside criteria, amended commercial parking requirements and outdoor display regulations.

Houston noted that regulation of outdoor displays, particularly on the Boardwealk, is an on-going process, which will be reviewed at the end of this seasons’ increased enforcement.

“They have been working diligently with the merchants,” Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith said of the Boardwalk Development Association.

Planning Commission member Peck Miller noted several merchants who have relayed to him that enforcement is stronger than ever this year along the Boardwalk.

Houston highlighted the current efforts being undertaken by planning and zoning including comprehensive rezoning and developing regulations in commercial districts.

“It’s really nothing major, just some minor adjustments,” Houston said of the comprehensive rezoning.

The department will be changing zoning classifications where appropriate based on the comprehensive plan and current maps, specifically commercial zones.

“We’re not rezoning anything that isn’t already commercial,” explained Commission member Lauren Taylor.

Development regulations will also be put in place, particularly regarding residential development in commercial zones.

“You ought to develop the regulations in the commercial districts first,” advised Mayor Rick Meehan, suggesting the commission pass the regulations before making any zoning changes.

Future efforts on the agenda include addressing non-conforming parking, improving open space and landscaping requirements and increasing design standards throughout the town and outside of the downtown area, which currently adheres to its own set of design standards.

Improvements in sign regulations are also a future effort in line for the Planning and Zoning Department.

“The big thing is the number of signs. We don’t control the number of signs on a property,” said Houston.

Shadow controls will also be enhanced in the future, however Houston noted the difficulties in enhancing shadow control in an urban area like Ocean City.

“Any building passes shadow on a next door neighbor as close as our buildings are,” he said.

Concern over the difference between a major and minor change to a site plan has increased since the situation at Rivendell, which included numerous public hearings and meetings before the Mayor and City Council about the height amendment to the building, which was never brought back to the Mayor and Council for re-approval.

Currently, if a change is considered major, the site plan, changes included, must go through the approval process again, from public hearing to final approval. Minor changes, however, do not follow that same procedure.

Smith pointed out that the problem arises in the definition of major and minor change. For example, the change from a rounded to squared wall on the north side of the Rivendell building was technically a minor change, but several of the council members agreed that the “minor” change had a profound affect on the aesthetics of 81st Street and should have been brought back to the council for approval.

“We need to look at what is major and what is minor a lot more closely,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic.

“I think, because we are 95 percent built out, we need 3-D models, somehow,” said Council member Nancy Howard, suggesting that all applicants be required to present a 3-dimensional model that includes surrounding buildings, to give the council a better view of the overall project.

Attorney Will Esham pointed out the aesthetic appeal is not reason enough to deny a project, essentially making the 3-4 model unnecessary and time consuming for the applicant.

“You wouldn’t have the legislative right or pull to turn it down if you didn’t like the way it looked,” said Esham.

The two groups considered having every change, major or minor, brought back to the commission and council.

“You don’t want to burden the council down with it,” warned Smith, noting the amount of changes that could potentially come up with a project.

“It certainly is more of a burden to us when someone else catches it and brings it back,” said Mitrecic.

“As they design and build, they see ways to cut their costs and in cutting their costs they cheapen the building’s appearance and now it becomes an eye sore,” said Councilman Jay Hancock.

“Any change, we have no problem taking back,” said Houston, pointing out that any change, major or minor could be brought to his staff for review. Houston added that at this point in the market, there is not an abundance of projects anyway.

“That’s the key, being ready for the next round,” said Meehan.