OCEAN CITY – As the City Council voted to go one way, businessman Rick Laws publicly announced he was going the other, and it appears those paths will eventually lead both parties to court.
Ocean City officials say they they desperately need Laws’ property. However, as Laws continues to move forward with his own plans to turn the site of the old Slide N’ Ride on 64th Street into a nationally franchised five-story hotel, all signs point to an impending court battle, which could decide if condemnation of the property by the town for future expansion to its wastewater facility or Laws’ commercial interests are the “best and highest use” for the mounds of dirt that sit there currently.
It might be a chess match, or more like a municipal game of “Risk”, but Laws sat in attendance at City Hall on Monday night and watched as the council passed an ordinance, by way of a 6-1 vote with Margaret Pillas in opposition, to move forward with condemnation proceedings in efforts to seize his property that abuts the currently maxed-out wastewater facility treatment plant.
Laws pleaded to the council to vote against the ordinance, citing his family’s long history as business and property owners in town, but his comments did little to sway an almost unanimous decision.
“They voted to condemn this property before they ever made us an offer,” said Laws on Tuesday via phone interview, “but my lawyers are telling me to continue to move forward with our plans, and we are doing just that. Just because they passed an ordinance, it doesn’t preclude us from developing our own property.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres first introduced the ordinance July 20 to the Mayor and City Council for first reading, but had to be instructed of the council’s wishes prior to that date in order to write up the ordinance for the July 20 introduction.
With that said, it should be noted that Laws severely altered his original plans for the property that he submitted on April 6 as a four-story student housing dormitory as recently as July 16, outlining his new plans for the 104-room, five-story hotel.
Some have deduced that Laws’ quick change in plans is an effort to drive up the value of the site for the impending court case, which will determine what is the “best and highest use” for the land and the possible compensation for the land.
Laws contests that the change in plans was due to the large numbers of foreign workers that were reportedly leaving the area due to the poor economy and their inability to find second and third jobs.
“It became obvious to me, that a building of that nature would just not be a good business move for the future,” Laws said.
Hypothetically, if the town were to win this case, a jury will determine the compensation that the town must pay to Laws for the property, and it should also be noted that the assessed value of the property is about $2 million less than what it was a few years ago.
Either way, Laws’ hotel project is currently circulating around the town’s planning and zoning department for staff review and could come before the Planning and Zoning Commission in the next two weeks for approval.
Laws told The Dispatch that he hopes to get approval and start with the building permit process by the end of the month.
Yet, those on both sides of this issue have conceded that talks between the two parties about the town’s interest in this land have been ongoing for years, all stemming back to the town’s claim that the property is a vital element to ensuring the town is ready for future growth in Ocean City.
“The bottom line is that wastewater is as important to this town as anything that this town does,” said City Manager Dennis Dare. “We have utilized every inch of that facility, and we need to plan ahead for the future to ensure our infrastructure. We don’t want to introduce a new industrial facility into a neighborhood and we don’t want to cost the town more money in doing so. This land is contiguous [to the current facility] and it’s vital for our future.”
Ayres said that the potential court ruling might be as far down the timeline as nine to 12 months before it gets to Circuit Court.
Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins said Laws’ project still realistically has a long way to go before it could break ground, pending various departmental approvals, building permits, etc, despite it’s current status of awaiting approval by the town’s zoning department.
“I was under the impression that they had signed a contract with a company for the student housing project, but I’m unsure if they’ve secured a contractor for the proposed hotel,” said Adkins, “but historically, the Mayor and City Council have been very critical of projects being fast tracked to ensure that everything is done right and all aspects of the building are in compliance.”
Pocomoke-based contractor Melvin L. Blades and Son was reportedly contracted to do the student dormitory building but representatives for the company decline to comment if they were involved with Laws’ new hotel project.
Adkins also mentioned that in the last 10 days, all activity at the 64th Street site had “come to a grinding halt”, but Laws claimed on Monday night that 500 loads of fill had already been removed from the site and would continue to be removed as the project forged ahead.
Mayor Rick Meehan addressed the audience at City Hall on Monday night treading lightly around the touchy subject of possible litigation while emphasizing the town’s motive behind condemnation.
“We are trusted with the task of making sure our infrastructure operates, and that’s the most important thing we do as a Mayor and City Council – to make sure that infrastructure is operating today and in the future,” said Meehan. “You can see throughout history how past councils went out and purchased property and if they hadn’t stepped forward then, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do today, so that’s what is behind this property purchase.