Harrison, City Square Off Over Inlet Lot Policies

OCEAN CITY — A dispute between the city and a business owner with a notable last name has led to a change in traffic patterns for those heading towards the Inlet parking lot this weekend and, presumably, this summer.

Last weekend, local businessmen Hale Harrison, owner of Harrison’s Harbor Watch and numerous other restaurants and hotels throughout town, took umbrage with the Ocean City Police Department’s decision to close off access to the Inlet parking lot at Baltimore Avenue and South 1st Street when it reached full capacity. He subsequently had his attorney write a complaint to the Mayor and City Council demanding a change.

As a result of Harrison’s displeasure with the longstanding traffic routing strategy implemented by the town when the lot reaches full capacity, which includes blocking off the far right lane from access to the Inlet lot, and routing traffic either straight into the Harbor Watch parking lot, or north up Baltimore Avenue, Councilman Jim Hall gave City Manager Dennis Dare the proverbial “business” for adversely effecting Harrison’s weekend business at his restaurant.

“Before we do anything, you need to sit down with the Harrisons, the Trimpers and the police department and [attorney] Joe Moore and get this worked out prior to this weekend,” said Hall. “It isn’t up to us and it shouldn’t be. If the city wants to institute that plan again and I was one of the Inlet Village business owners, I would say ‘no, I’m not having this, because you’re going to put me out of business. You’ve done it before and now, you want to do it again.’ It’s not right, and it’s got to get worked out. Get it cleared up with them so we don’t get any more of these letters.”

The letter penned by Moore on May 3, representing Harrison, never threatened the city with a lawsuit in specific verbiage, but strongly urged the council to adhere to a April 13, 2010 ruling in which the council voted unanimously to not block access to the Inlet lot as it did last weekend, and ended with “it is my earnest request to the Mayor and City Council that such attempts to deny lawful access from a State Highway to a local business in the Town of Ocean City will never again occur.”

City Solicitor Guy Ayres said yesterday that Harrison had brought the issue up last year and that it was thought to be resolved.

“I think the letter was written out of frustration because they thought that it had been worked out, and apparently it didn’t work in Mr. Harrison’s opinion,” said Ayres. “I’ve had many conversations with Mr. Moore over the past year about this and a lawsuit was never spoken of to me.”

Hall pointed out this week, that the section of road that the town closed to motorists is actually owned by the state, and the town owns the stretch of road leading to the Inlet lot (ie, near the large Indian totem pole), thus making the bottom line was that the city had gone against the council’s will and that of the law.

Dare contested that the reason the lot was closed and the traffic patterns were put into play last weekend was due to the Springfest set-up taking up more than half of the available spaces.

“We didn’t anticipate having a problem with traffic last weekend, but we did, and had to institute this traffic pattern,” said Dare. “it’s not a bad problem to have though.”

After what Moore called a “meeting of the minds” on Wednesday, the two parties came to an agreement that will see southbound traffic in the extreme right lane be routed toward the Inlet lot and u-turns will be instituted on town-owned property, and permitted cars (i.e, vendors, employees, for Springfest) will be allowed through.

Concurrently, the middle lane will funnel traffic straight at Baltimore Avenue and South 1st Street onto the Trimper-owned property that will enable motorists to pass through toward Harrison’s Harbor Watch and the other Inlet Village shops.

In addition, the town will place three electronic signs leading up to the police presence near the turn and will indicate to motorists that if they are headed to Harrison’s Harbor Watch or have permit parking for Springfest cars should stay in the extreme right lane.

City Engineer Terry McGean said on Wednesday that if the lot is full, motorists would be stopped at the toll booth area and allowed in on a “one car in, one car out” basis.

Dare told the council the so-called agreement with Harrison was “as accommodating to their wishes as we can be without being able to function properly as a city.”

Some in the town’s hierarchy have quietly conceded that perhaps the town had done too much to appease one or a few business owners in the matter, bringing up the potential gridlock that could occur by routing traffic up to the tollbooths in the Inlet lot and instituting an “one car in, one car out” policy.

Hall said both the town and the police department dropped the ball last weekend by closing access to the Inlet lot, a move that reportedly enraged Harrison to the point that he was seen shooting video of the traffic patterns, having animated conversations with police officers and eventually driving to police headquarters.

Chief Bernadette DiPino said that although Harrison never filed an official complaint, she said she had a lengthy discussion with him to try to address his concerns.

“I have heard no reports from my officers that he spoke to them inappropriately, but he was certainly upset at what happened and we talked about that on Sunday,” said DiPino. “We are going to do the best we can this weekend to make sure that traffic runs smoothly and people can get to the Inlet Village. It is going to be a challenge.”

Ironically, the town had to alter the agreed upon traffic pattern yesterday morning as some motorists were not following the digital signage and getting into wrong lanes and the cones that were dividing the lanes were reportedly causing major concerns.

“Some of it is human nature as anytime you make a change people are going to either not read the signs, or just not merge in a uniform manner,” said DiPino. “I saw a couple of incidents where there could have been accidents, and we also made an alteration because some of the other businesses down there were actually complaining [the new traffic pattern] was blocking access to their entrances.”

Regardless of the dispute, both parties presumably are hoping for the best this weekend for Springfest, and in future busy weekends when the ever-present concern of traffic is at its highest concern.

“We always want to do what we can to help out the business community, but we also have to keep in mind how our decisions are going to effect the visitors, and the residents of Ocean City,” said Meehan. “I guess what we’ll do is hope for the best, put this plan into action and let the parties who so desired the change be accountable for whatever the results.”