OCEAN CITY — After a marathon public hearing, Ocean City planners have recommended an extension of the town’s amusement overlay district to take in a property that will become a high-end, state-of-the-art haunted house at the site of an existing underage nightclub.
The Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday night approved an extension of the town’s amusement overlay district, which allows certain uses not permitted in other zoning designations. The proposed extension, which will ultimately come before the Mayor and Council, would take in several properties throughout the historic downtown area including the H2O underage dance club on the north side of Worcester Street that is proposed for a state-of-the-art haunted house.
Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith explained the intent of the requested extension was to bring the H2O underage club property into the amusement overlay district to facilitate the development of the haunted house, which would not be a permitted use under the property’s existing zoning. Steelhead Productions, which has developed critically acclaimed haunted houses in other areas around the state, most notably Field of Screams in Olney and DC Screams in the nation’s capital, intends to repurpose the old underage nightclub for its latest production.
In order for the amusement overlay district to cohesively reach the H20 site, however, other properties currently not in the overlay district are proposed for inclusion, although it appears somewhat odd they are not in the zoning designation already. For example, other properties proposed for the extension of the amusement overlay district include Marty’s Playland, the Sportland Arcade, the Dough Roller property and a lot on the opposite side of Baltimore Avenue owned by Trimper’s referred to as the Tank Battle lot, although the latter caused some heartburn for town planners and was ultimately left out of the extension.
Smith explained the historic nature of the properties made the extension of the amusement overlay district, including the site of the proposed haunted house, logical.
“It’s appropriate for this to be in the amusement overlay district,” he said. “If you look at the neighborhood, it’s very important to maintain this area as part of the amusement overlay district.”
Smith further explained bringing in the other properties proposed for the extension also made sense because it created a seamless amusement overlay district with a few exceptions.
“The proposed haunted house at Worcester Street is the primary reason for the request, but it’s appropriate to fill in all of these little enclaves that were left out of the amusement overlay district,” he said.
For years, Ocean City has attempted to direct heavy Boardwalk pedestrian traffic off the famous promenade and onto the side streets to support other businesses in the downtown area with varying success. Attorney Joe Moore, who represents all of the property owners in the proposed overlay district extension including the haunted house site, told city planners the extension would help accomplish those goals.
“We believe this haunted house will fit precisely in the goals of the downtown area because it becomes a destination off the Boardwalk that directs pedestrian traffic into the downtown area of the resort,” he said.
For his part, Steelhead Productions owner and operator Dan Dionisio assured his proposed “haunt” at the Worcester Street property would add a nice, but very scary attraction to the downtown area.
“We’ve been in the business for 15 years and this would be our third permanent location,” he said. “We have DC Scream and Field of Screams and I envision this being Ocean City Scream. We do feel we will become a destination in the downtown area.”
The proposed site of the haunted house on Worcester Street is owned by the Mathias family and for years has been the site of the H2O underage dance club. Prior to that, it was run as the Gentleman Jim’s billiards and amusement parlor. Dionisio explained his company was experienced in handling large crowds at the other haunts around the state, some of which draw as many as 8,000 people a night.
“We get 500 to 700 people through our haunt per hour,” he said. “We’re hoping to be that busy, but we don’t envision long lines. We know how to manage crowds and we’re very experienced. We’ve always been good neighbors.”
Dionisio said the haunted house would be spread out on two floors with 13 rooms, each with their uniquely different scary attractions, on each floor. Steelhead’s haunts include actors in costume and the visitors walk through the venue.
“It’s not really for little kids,” he said. “I would say teens and up. It’s meant to be scary. We would have groups of four to six going through and it will take about 15 minutes to go through.”
While most of the properties proposed for the amusement overlay district are on the east side of Baltimore Avenue, the old Tank Battle lot owned by Trimper’s is on the west side of Baltimore Ave. and that distinction caused some consternation for the planning commission. Although the site is currently used as a storage lot for the Trimper’s amusement park, some on the commission voiced concern about a potentially different use in the future and worried about encouraging pedestrian traffic across the busy corridor. Others said not including the lot on the west side of Baltimore Avenue created a buffer of sorts between the amusement district and the residential areas downtown.
Chris Trimper explained while there is no amusement on the site, it is critical to the operation of the historic amusement park and urged its inclusion in the overlay district in order to maintain a seamless zoning designation for the family’s properties.
“It’s now a crucial equipment storage and servicing area for our rides and it has to be where it is,” he said. “It’s also a staging area for our ride inspections and it keeps our amusement park going. We plan 50 years out and we don’t have any intention of using it for anything other than what it is now. If we ever proposed a change in the use, we would have to bring it back to the planning commission.”
The Son Spot Ministries building sits directly adjacent to the H2O site and proposed home for the haunted house, but declined an invitation to join the amusement overlay district for a variety of reasons. While he doesn’t oppose the overlay district extension in general, or even the haunted house specifically, Son Spot Ministries’ owner Gary Steger said he would oppose the inclusion of the old Tank Battle site in the plan. Steger said he preferred not to be in the amusement overlay district because he feared he would lose leverage to oppose future developments if he was included.
“That house has been in our family for 100 years and we appreciate all of our neighbors,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the haunted house, but we wouldn’t want to see some other kind of amusement there.”
Owners of the historic Henry Hotel on the corner of Worcester Street and Baltimore Avenue also opposed including the old Tank Battle lot in the overlay district for a variety of reasons. Justine Bond, whose family has owned the Henry Hotel since the late 1890s, said while there are no complaints with the Trimpers’ current use of the neighboring property, she feared what inclusion in the overlay district might bring in the future.
“The Henry Hotel is already closest to the biggest ride that causes the most noise and shaking in the downtown area,” she said. “We have to look at our own financial plan and having an overlay district on our block would affect us. Trimpers has proven it can provide the fun, but we’re looking to preserve a little respite from the fun. The Henry Hotel is in the business of selling rooms and we cannot do so if the guests can’t sleep.”
After considerable debate about how to extend the amusement overlay district without causing undue hardship on neighboring properties, the planning commission voted to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council, but not before adding some caveats. The planning commission’s approved motion included extending the amusement overlay district to four of the five properties that requested it, including the haunted house at Worcester Street, omitting the Tank Battle lot for a variety of reasons, and putting a condition on the haunted house approval stating it would have to come back for approval if a different use was proposed in the future.
“I’m very comfortable with what has been presented,” said Planning Commissioner Chris Shanahan. “The people’s concerns for the future are valid, but I think we can structure this in such a way to make everybody happy.”
Planning Commissioner Peck Miller said the Trimper’s Tank Battle lot was grandfathered and could continue its current use, but said it should not be included in the overlay district. Instead, Miller said the code could be changed with a separate text amendment to ensure its continued current use.
“I don’t think the Tank Battle lot should be included,” she said. “I have concerns about pedestrians crossing Baltimore Avenue and I also think the properties on that side to the street provide a buffer from the amusement areas to the residential areas. They are grandfathered in on that lot and they can come back if they ever want to change.”