OC Density Change Blasted

Planning and Zoning Commission rejected a proposal that would have reduced the
allowable density of commercially zoned properties in Ocean City after a
barrage of negative public comment seemingly gave them no other choice.

Several weeks ago, the
Mayor and City Council sent a proposal or amendment to the town’s comprehensive
plan back to the Planning and Zoning Commission due to the fact that two prior
public hearings (in 2008 and 2009) concerning the matter had received
absolutely zero public input.

“I just don’t think
people know what we are doing here, and I don’t think they will be very happy
about this,” said Councilman Jim Hall. “We need to have another public hearing
and let all these impacted property owners know what’s going on.”

As a result, the city
sent over 1,700 letters informing property owners their intentions to decrease
the allowable density for residential properties in commercial districts in the
Bayside Marine (BM-1) district, hotel and motel districts, local commercial
districts (LC-1) and shopping center districts (SC-1) by as much as 47% in some

The town’s plan, which
staff members have been reportedly working on for almost a decade, was supposed
to protect the presence of commercial properties if and when the next
residential building boom took place in Ocean City, by encouraging commercial
development and putting a bit of restriction on residential development.

The public that the
council so badly sought opinion from came by the dozens on Tuesday night, and
seemingly no one was happy about the town’s long-term plans due to the adverse
effects they claimed it would have on their property values in the short term.

“I’m a little bit upside
down right now,” said Seacrets owner Leighton Moore. “That means you borrow
money against the property, the property is then not as valuable because of the
economic situation, and then you become vulnerable to any bank of foreclosing
on you when they demand their note. But, to go ahead and have the Planning and
Zoning Commission devalue that property even more puts me totally upside down.
Although I have no desire to build what you are so afraid of me building and
that is condominiums, even though that’s the highest and best use of the
investment, but you need to think about what you are doing because you are
going to force people into foreclosure by downzoning their property.”

Local attorney Joseph
Moore spoke on behalf of almost 20 property and business owners, who own 68 acres
of land spread out from 4th Street to 145th Street and
who account for 23% of the available commercial land in the resort. He said
they all opposed the idea and felt that if the town moved forward with the
motion as written, it would put a strangle hold on the future of their
businesses and take a sizeable chunk out of their property values.

“These folks are united
in one matter, and that is that they are against this bill,” said Moore. “There
is a way to encourage commercial growth in this town by using the carrot and
not the stick. If you read the wording of this ordinance, you are using the
stick by forcing the owners towards a reduction or else.”

Ocean City Director of
Planning and Development Jesse Houston explained some of the actual effects the
ordinance would have made on properties, outlining how the new law would reduce
density on properties owned in the east side of Coastal Highway by 29%, and the
west side of Coastal Highway by 47% in order to encourage commercial growth on
the ocean block.

For example, on a
40,000-square-foot parcel (which is almost 1 acre) an allowable 38-unit
condominium building would now be reduced to 27 (as per the 29% reduction on
the ocean block) or 20 units (as per the 47% reduction on the bayside)

On a two-acre plot, (approximately
80,000 square feet), the reduction from the allowable 78 units would go down to
55 units and 40 units on the oceanside and the bayside, respectively.

“We’ve seen property
assessments go down more than $1.4 billion and this will not only effect the
appraisals of properties but it will also severely affect the site plans too,”
said attorney Joe Moore. “We believe that there are ample commercial locations
in town that are sitting vacant, and that the visitors of this town should
determine its growth as they are the lifeblood of this resort. But, no one can
afford these changes Madame Chair.”

The Planning and Zoning
Commission had removed hotels from the ordinance, as well as those properties
in the Bayside Marine District, leaving only properties zoned in the LC-1 and
the SC-1 districts vulnerable to the changes.

Commissioner Peck Miller
and Chairwoman Pam Buckley did the majority of the back and forth discussions
with the angry members of the public.

“We are trying to
protect what’s left of the developable land in Ocean City for the next boom
because if we lose these commercial spots to residential, they are gone
forever,” Miller said. “Once a condo goes up, it’s not going anywhere, but we
understand that density and what decreasing the density will do.”

Buckley pointed out that
the issue is being forced to the forefront because there is little land left to
develop in Ocean City. Some have predicted that the next so-called building
boom in Ocean City will be heavy on redevelopment.

“We have less than 5% of
undeveloped land in Ocean City now,” said Buckley. “Up until now, we always had
land before.”

In the end, the public
was heard loud and clear, as the commission essentially tore the proposal up
and went back to the proverbial drawing board.

Although the situation
is not going away for property owners, Houston says that perhaps now, the
conversation to address the concern will involve the public a bit more.

“Planners and the
Planning Commission work to accomplish the ‘public good’ for the long run, but
we also have to always be mindful of the impact of actions on individuals,”
said Houston. “Sometimes it is not possible to avoid some negative impact on an
individual or group, but in this case I think we can find a way to accomplish
our goal of protecting commercial land without unduly harming the property