Social Commentary: Ocean City’s Identity Crisis

(The following is the first in a two-part historical perspective examining the right to vote and its effect on a seasonal resort.)

Ocean City is continually in the midst of an identity crisis.

On good days, it is a city being run like a business. While on bad days, it is a business being run like a city. It is not really the city’s fault. In fact, if anybody deserves credit for this identity crisis, it is probably the men and women who turned their businesses into a resort back in 1875.

Fortunately, to clarify this issue, the town has key democratic features that distinguish it from a business. Perhaps the most important of which is the right to vote.

Initially, the only people who lived on the actual island owned and operated the businesses that eventually blossomed into a resort. Thus, there was no need to differentiate between resident property owners and non-resident property owners. That, however, would all change in the 1970’s when Ocean City went through its first, high-rise condominium boom.

By 1975, Forbes magazine estimated that there were 3,000 unsold condominium units on the market in Ocean City, enough to provide each of the town’s 2,500 residents with a second home. For the fledgling beach resort, more condominiums meant visitors and more money. Yet, there was a problem. According to the original town charter, any person who owned or leased more than $1,000 dollars of property was eligible to vote. Therefore, every new condominium owner was eligible and the voter registration rolls began to expand.

As the city grew, so did the public’s dissent. Beaches were becoming too crowded, traffic was becoming congested and the town was forced to create a new charter. A Charter Revision Committee was tasked with developing the changes that included a new zoning code and two amendments, labeled 1976-3 and 1976-4, which would change the qualifications to vote in Ocean City and "grandfathered" in any previously registered voters. Instead of the $1,000 property ownership benchmark, qualified voters would have to be domiciled within the corporate limits of the town.

According to court records, the Charter Revision Committee believed "the primary purpose of this particular Charter Amendment (1976-3) was to maintain Home Rule in Ocean City … However, this [Resolution 1976-4] enables us to have our cake and eat it too, because we will be able to preserve home rule for Ocean City and yet we do not have to take the vote away from anybody who has it at present."

However, the prospects of maintaining home rule in the town were not appealing to everybody. Over 200 non-resident property owners had continued to register to vote in the municipal election following the changes but, in accordance with the amendments, were denied registration. A heated debate ensued and two additional amendments were passed to help mitigate the impact of any future, impending lawsuit.

For the 200 non-resident property owners, the new amendments were not sufficient. Together, they formed a group called Ocean City Taxpayers for Equal Rights and sued the city under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the United Stated Constitution.

Ultimately, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the amendment grandfathering in previously registered voters was ruled severable from the other amendments, which remained intact.

What the amendments and issues surrounding the aforementioned case did was push the Town of Ocean City out of adolescence and into the framework of a city. Yet, as the decades passed by, the struggle between Ocean City’s dual personalities would continue.