OCEAN CITY — City Manager Dennis Dare said that the looming legal battle over Rick Laws’ 64th Street property is “practically identical” to the town’s acquisition of the land that neighbors the site and is now the home of a vital part of town infrastructure.
As expected, Laws got served with the condemnation papers last week, as the town continues to move forward with hopes of acquiring his land, which used to be the home of the 64th Street Slide-N-Ride, for future and alleged imperative growth of the town’s wastewater treatment facility. Laws has been approved at the Planning and Zoning Commission level to build a 100-plus unit, five-story hotel even as the town moves forward with condemnation proceedings.
Yet, there are few in the town who believe that an agreement will be made without the help of a jury, who would determine the “highest and best use of the property” and award the amount of compensation to Laws if it found in favor of the town of Ocean City.
A look back into the history books, however, shows that this isn’t the first time that the town has moved forward with condemnation proceedings or seemingly bought out a landowner for town infrastructure.
Back in 1979, then council members Hale Harrison and Guy Ayres had the foresight to seek a headquarters for vital infrastructure for the town and moved to acquire the property from the Larmore Corporation, who owned Playland Amusements, for around $1 million.
“Back then, $1 million was a lot of money, and it probably still is now,” said Ayres, “but I remember Hale [Harrison] brought it to me and we saw the importance of acquiring that land for the future infrastructure of Ocean City in terms of growing the town and it ended up being a hell of a deal in hindsight.”
What used to be Playland is now the Public Works facility that houses everything from the wastewater treatment plant to trash to city buses. As other municipalities are seemingly spread out across city limits, a large part of this town’s infrastructure is run out of one proverbial shop.
Town officials have cited the efficiency created by this fact and the fact that Laws’ property is abutted to the current wastewater treatment facility as the main reasons that Laws’ land is the only option for what the town wants and needs.
Ayres said that although he would like to see a settlement made prior to it going to court, he feels it may not happen as Laws’ blatant desire is to build a hotel.
“The only thing I could see that might bring in to an out-of-court settlement is if there was some sort of a land swap, so Mr. Laws could still build his hotel, and the town would get the land they wanted,” said Ayres.
With the Playland purchase, Ayres said there was a bit of public backlash because two Realtors [Jim Caine and Bill Kelly] who listed the property and ended up making about $100,000 on the transaction.
Dare said that even though the purchase of the land preceded his time as a hired official in Ocean City, the only difference between the acquisition of Playland and the desired seizure of the Laws’ property is that the Playland case didn’t have to go all the way to condemnation proceedings.
“That land acquisition in my opinion was one of the most important ones for this town,” said Dare, “and I think that if we are to keep looking forward into the future of Ocean City, this property is just as vital.”
Ayres said that other than the acquisition of the land that now is the home for Northside Park, the Playland property was probably one of the biggest land acquisitions for the town in 30 years.
Ayres said Northside Park’s land was purchased in the early-80’s from John Howard Burbage, who was in the midst of a US District Court proceeding for a wetlands violation.
The town struck a deal with the Army Corps of Engineers and Burbage and bought the property, making the necessary alterations to the wetlands and essentially taking over the land that now houses not only the Recreation and Parks Department, but also the town’s largest and most aesthetically pleasing public park.
History also shows that there were two other condemnation proceedings that the town has gone through, which in both cases the town got what it wanted.
The first was in the early 1990’s concerning the 4th Street property owned by Clyde Smith, who was unwilling to sell his property to the town, who wanted to increase parking throughout the town of Ocean City.
Mayor Rick Meehan, who was then on the council, brought the idea of taking some of the revenue from the Inlet parking lot and building three new parking lots in the town of Ocean City (100th Street, Somerset Street and 4th Street).
“At the time, all the high-rises that were built only provided one space per unit so all the overflow parking was going to residential areas in north Ocean City,” said Meehan. “In addition, we wanted to provide more parking downtown, so I struck a deal with Clyde, but he changed his mind at the last minute as he was a bit reclusive and didn’t want to give up his space to anyone.”
The matter was set for trial but was famously settled on the courthouse steps in Snow Hill on the day of the trial between Smith, Meehan and Ayres.
The exact financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but both Ayres and Meehan recalled it not being a large number as the Baltimroe Avenue property was in “pretty bad shape.”
The most recent condemnation case did make it to court in 2002, as the town moved to acquire the land that now is the off-ramp or right turn lane at the base of the Route 50 bridge that leads motorists south toward the Inlet.
The land was owned by the Downtown Brewing Company and, according to Meehan, a deal was agreed upon in theory between he and owner Christopher DiForte, but DiForte backed out and changed his mind at the last minute.
The jury toured DiForte’s facility that was posted “no occupancy” and in “deplorable shape”, according to Ayres, and found in the city’s favor for the off-ramp to be the “highest and best usage of the property.”
Ayres recalled the compensation being somewhere around $35,000 for DiForte, but noted that his property had a lien against it by several entities including the IRS and he probably left the deal with much less.
Ayres said that the interesting part of that case was the appeal process when DiForte’s attorney’s claimed that a municipality can’t act in a condemnation proceeding on behalf of the State Highway Administration, citing that the project involved state roadways.
“There is a statute that says that a municipality and the state can work together in such a matter when it has to do with roadways,” said Ayres. “Plus, he took the compensation despite his appeal, so the judge threw out DiForte’s appeal.”
In the last two cases of condemnation, both properties were in bad shape and were called blatant eyesores, making a jury decision all the more easy, even though it only went to a jury in one instance.
In the looming 64th Street property case, Laws has put forth viable and concrete plans for a major hotel project which could give a jury an awful lot to think about when verdict time rolls around.
The one constant, however, seems to be that the town says this land is the only option, and Meehan seems to once again be the conduit as far as negotiations between the parties.
“I think I’m the only one that is authorized to talk to Rick [Laws] at this point, and I haven’t spoken to him recently,” said Meehan. “I would love to see something worked out and settled and we want to compensate Rick for this land. He is a good guy and talks that we have had have always been cordial, but just like the town leaders of the past had great foresight to make tough decisions, we feel this is the exact same thing for the future of the town.”