OCEAN CITY – With scooter rental operators adopting the impression the city wants to put them all out of business, the Mayor and City Council took a step back this week and made a few changes to the proposed law before its final vote.
“I don’t think any of us who voted for this did it because we wanted to destroy business. We did it because we want people to be safe,” Councilwoman Mary Knight said during Monday night’s Mayor and City Council meeting.
In February, the Mayor and City Council became concerned over the proliferation of scooter rental businesses in town and the safety concerns that have surfaced, such as a rapid increase in the number of scooter related accidents. The Planning and Zoning Commission was tasked to focus on the industry and come forth with recommendations.
The first ordinance proposed would require all existing, or new, scooter rental businesses to comply with the new regulations this year or not be granted a business license, which would be in place from June 1, 2012 through May 31, 2013. The second ordinance in play requires scooter rentals to apply for a conditional use permit.
One of the proposed regulations, which would eliminate most of the scooter rentals from staying in business, is the licensee must provide instruction and training to each customer in advance of the rental of the vehicle, as well as provide a training area on the premise of the business or on other private property within a reasonable walking distance. The training area must be unobstructed paved surfaces at least 20 feet wide by 50 feet long in order to provide adequate space to turn, accelerate and stop the vehicle.
A recent inventory of scooter rental businesses taken by Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith proved that only five scooter rental businesses out of 20 would comply with the new regulations set forth in the ordinance.
“I know there must be on the City Council, the Mayor, amongst you some good Republicans, at least maybe in the closet,” Attorney Peter Wimbrow, representing Island Cycles, said. “It seems to me one of the important tenets of the Republican Party is less regulation on the businesses, especially the small businesses. Let the marketplace regulate what these people are doing.”
Wimbrow argued that his clients would not want inexperienced individuals to drive their scooters to protect the vehicle.
“I know the purpose of this legislation is to guard and protect the safety of the residents and visitors … we can go too far and I think this is too far because I don’t think it is a problem,” he said. “These people do not want their machines destroyed, they want to be able to make money and they can’t make money off the machine if it’s in the repair shop.”
Planning and Zoning Commission member Peck Miller explained that the commission considered adding the language “acceptable training area” instead of the measurement of 20 by 50 feet, and that an acceptable area would be determined during the conditional use permit process.
“In a conditional use permit, you look at each property differently,” he said.
Miller suggested passing the regulations as guidelines so that scooter rentals could adhere as much as possible this year until the regulations will be enforced next year.
“That would allow those who didn’t have code compliant operations time to either look for a different location next year or find additional property that they would be allowed to work off of,” he said.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said that it all comes down to public safety and the council would not be doing their due diligence if the matter was delayed any longer.
“If we could look at it in terms of grandfathering in those who comply completely and then allowing this year for it [training area] to be at the discretion of our zoning administrator, and then next year everybody has to come for the conditional use,” she offered.
Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith added that the ordinance provides other language that prohibits what can be considered an acceptable area. The ordinance states, “The training area shall not interfere with parking spaces, drive aisles, or access points used by other businesses or residences. Training shall not take place on public property or rights of way without permission of the Mayor and City Council.”
The council discussed striking “drive aisles” from the language so that paved areas in the scooter rental company’s area that are not being used by other businesses or resident, such as a remote section of a parking lot, could be considered an acceptable place to train, but there was no final decision made on the matter.
Councilman Brent Ashley, who has been opposed to the regulations since the beginning, said the accidents are going to happen with or without a training area.
“Once they leave that training area, they are going to do what they want anyway,” he said.
Councilman Joe Hall, who has also been in opposition, said the legislation is a result of the scooter rental operators inviting the government into their business to solve the issue of a couple bad eggs within the industry.
“You are trying to correct public safety with a zoning code and what it is going to do is put some of your competitors out of business but believe me, once you invite us in we don’t get out,” he said. “This year you might be safe, next year you might be safe, but we don’t stop. We will keep tweaking this thing until we get into your pocketbook and cost you money because you have to do this or that. That is just reality of what is happening here.”
Joe Hall added that the council is not going to solve the problem between public safety and scooters, but enforcement will.
The final changes made were the five scooter rental operations that currently meet all regulations are now grandfathered and will not have to receive a conditional use as long as they continue to meet all of the regulations.
The existing businesses that do not meet the regulations can continue to operate this year without a conditional use, but will have to apply next year. They will have to meet all regulations this year, including the practice space.
The specific measurement of the training area, 20 feet wide by 50 feet long, was removed and replaced by “acceptable training area”, which will be determined at the discretion of Smith.
“The same thing will apply after this year, so before they operate for the season of 2013 those existing businesses that don’t meet the current requirements and any new ones will have to go through the conditional use process, which is a public hearing with the Planning and Zoning Commission and final approval by the Mayor and City Council,” Planning and Community Development Director Jesse Houston said on Wednesday.
The City Council voted 4-3 to accept the ordinances on second reading. Council members Joe Hall, Brent Ashley and Lloyd Martin were opposed, and Doug Cymek, Jim Hall, Mary Knight and Margaret Pillas were in support. A moratorium suspending the issuance of new or renewed business licenses for scooter rentals is scheduled to be lifted on May 15.