City Council Hears More On Critical Area Program

Joanne Shriner
Staff Writer

OCEAN CITY – The Critical Area program was revisited and revised at this week’s Mayor and City Council meeting.

This week’s meeting went over a lot smoother then it did a couple of weeks ago when the topic of discussion reached the Critical Area program. This time the Mayor and City Council weren’t taken by surprise when City Engineer Terry McGean reviewed the regulations.

When the state of Maryland adopted the Critical Area legislation, which pertains to new development in waterfront areas in the state, counties and municipalities were required to develop their own Critical Area plans. The process of Ocean City being able to submit its own Critical Area program for approval is getting closer to being complete.

The Critical Area legislation intends to establish minimum setbacks from the water and wetlands for new construction. It also includes regulations in creating buffers and requires property owners to include landscaping and impervious surfaces on their land to support sensitive areas.

The last meeting raised a revelation of placing the entire town into the Critical Area. This caught the Mayor and City Council off guard.

“Eighty-five percent of the town is already in it,” McGean said. “Because the entire town drains into the bay, the entire town needs to be in the Critical Area.”

Town officials decided to put a vote on the plan on hold until they could fully interpret just what the proposed Critical Area meant, asking staff to go back and re-phrase the language.

Such changes were made, including, but not limited to, it now states all property in the town will be included in the program, buffer setback will be measured from the water and not based on underlying zoning setbacks, the enforcement and lot consolidation was added as required by the Critical Area Association, current landscaping will be combined with Critical Area planting requirements, and the wording to describe the land was changed to “waterfront setback”.

Kate Schmidt Charbonneau and Roby Hurley, Maryland’s Critical Area planners, were in attendance at the meeting.

“What we’re trying to work on now is merging our regulations with your existing underlying zoning, lot consolidation and re-configuration regulations,” said Hurley. “Just like your new zoning ordinance, we need to fine tune it for Ocean City. The difference is Ocean City is an all-intensive development and all buffer management area. You are unique in that respect and we are going to work on customizing that language. If you could give us time to work on that and approve everything else I think we would be happy.”

“To summarize where were heading with this is if we can come up with something that we feel comfortable to take to you in first reading,” McGean added. “Then we will include this section in first reading and if we cannot, we will ask you to strike the entire section including this process.”

Also, in the earlier session Councilman Joe Hall asked whether there was evidence that the state Critical Area laws were doing what they were intended to do.

This week, Gail Blazer, Ocean City Environmental Engineer, was present to answer his question.

“Assawoman bay is unlike other bays and has shown improvement,” she explained. “It’s remarkable to see the increase in sea grass and dissolved oxygen. Also, a decrease in nitrogen and phosphorous levels.”

Hall specifically referenced questionable evidence that in fact proves there are more crabs and clams out there than in the past.

“Dissolved oxygen in particular, which is really for fish, crabs, and shell fish, and it is a function of what is going into the system,” Blazer said.

A main function of buffers, landscape and impervious surfaces is to protect the bay and ocean from storm water effects and what is being washed into our surrounding waters.

“A lot of things we contribute to is the storm water effects in and around Ocean City. The science is real good on storm water when it comes to sediment and nutrients because were trying to hold those,” Blazer explained. “Because when it rains all of those are flowing out into the storm drains. So when you hold them back you basically reduce those sediments significantly.”

The council pushed the Critical Area program ordinance ahead and it will be heard on first reading at an upcoming meeting.