‘Ocean City Is A Huge Part Of My Life’ — Non-Resident Property Owners Talk Voting, Property Values, Love Of OC

‘Ocean City Is A Huge Part Of My Life’ — Non-Resident Property Owners Talk Voting, Property Values, Love Of OC
1 Ocean City IMG 6433 13 09 2012 1

OCEAN CITY – It’s a well-known fact that of all the properties in Ocean City, almost 80 percent are owned by people who don’t call the resort home.

Yet, we rarely hear their voices in the daily dialogue of town planning and strategizing. Their stories, as some would argue, are part of the lifeblood of what Ocean City has been built on: former customers who have become community members, frequent visitors and financial stakeholders in the resort.

The Voting Argument

Non-resident property owners have long argued that they are the proverbial bread and butter for the city’s property tax totals, which makes up more than half of its annual budget (53%); but while many are content with only visiting Ocean City on summer weekends or for a few months out of the year, others have long yearned for a larger stake in the community.

“I own more property in Ocean City than I do in Rockville,” said Mike DiFonzo, whose family has owned property and frequented the resort for years. “I technically can’t vote or be represented by government down the ocean. I should be able to vote in all elections where I own property.”

DiFonzo’s beliefs are mirrored by many non-resident property owners, but their wishes have long fallen on deaf ears at the city level. In fact, when the town was incorporated by Chapter 209 of the Acts of 1880, voting rights were extended not just to residents of the town, but also to non-residents who owned an interest in Ocean City real estate.

That remained unchanged for almost 95 years. That all changed on Jan. 5, 1976.

According to court documents surrounding the 1976 case, OC Taxpayers vs. Town of Ocean City in Maryland’s Court of Appeals (which the town won in 1977), the Ocean City Mayor and Council passed 48 amendments that day, including two, 1976-3 and 1976-4, which changed voter qualifications. 1976-3, in essence, limited the right to vote in Ocean City to people who lived in the resort for the four month preceding an election. Non-residents, therefore, could no longer remain on the voter rolls.

However, City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who was elected to the city council in 1978 and then became City Solicitor in 1982, says that court decision allowed for non-residents who were registered to vote prior to the court ruling to be “grandfathered in” and thusly, were allowed to continue to participate in town elections.

“Back then, I’m fairly certain that we didn’t have absentee ballots yet, so the number of non-residents who came down to cast a vote was very low,” said Ayres.

Currently, the town’s number of registered voters stands at 6,141, with year-round residents totaling 7,092 and an average summer-time population of 242,611.

Ayres believes the number of votes cast in Ocean City elections would rise dramatically if non-residents would be permitted to participate.

“If non-residents were allowed to vote, there would be a slew of requests, and I think it would completely change the election process here,” said Ayres. “I think originally [in 1976], there was a fear that since there were so many non-resident property owners, they could potentially control the elections down here, and I think that is still a fear that exists today.”

In coastal towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard, similar debates have been ongoing for decades as well, and sometimes, groups mobilize to try and win their voting rights.

But, in most cases, they fall short.

In 2014, a group of citizens in Ocean City, N.J. formed FIT (Fairness In Taxes), a community group of almost 900 that polled its members and found that 85 percent wanted voting rights in their resort community.

Yet, what FIT found, as do many other non-resident voting advocate groups, is that the hurdles are often too numerous and much too high.

There are practical issues, like how do you prevent voter fraud, to philosophical ones about how residents and non-residents share different views about decisions that should be made at a municipal level. In Ocean City, N.J.’s case, it would require an amendment to the state constitution with prerequisite support from a coalition much larger than a small community group.

Ayres believes that the town’s charter would be the only thing that would need to be amended in Maryland’s Ocean City to allow for non-residents to earn the right to vote in local elections.

Yet, there are resorts where non-residents can vote, and you only have to look as far as coastal Delaware to find a few.

There are five municipalities in Delaware, including Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach, where non-resident property owners can vote. Nationwide, only three states (Delaware, Connecticut and New Mexico) allow non-residents to vote.

“We’ve never had any problems with allowing non-residents to vote,” said Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Stan Mills. “The law has been in place for decades and I think it was originally passed so we could have some balance between the folks who lived in Rehoboth and those who didn’t but owned property.”

Still, in Ocean City, some residents are so frustrated with the lack of voting rights, they have considered going elsewhere.

“I’ve been coming to Ocean City since I was 12,” said 56-year-old CPA John Sheldon of Baltimore. “My family has owned property here for more than 40 years and I absolutely love it there. But I will admit, we considered selling our property and we looked at South Bethany Beach earlier this year. I just felt like my rights had been ignored in Ocean City.”

“I Don’t Want To Sell’

When the economy and the housing market tanked in 2008, many of Ocean City’s non-resident property owners took a massive hit. Many found their investment properties were suddenly worth substantially less than they bought it for.

“We bought pre-boom so we were okay, but my sister bought during the height of the boom and she is underwater financially,” said Mike DiFonzo.

And while others are holding on financially, many others say they refuse to ever let go of their Ocean City property.

“I’m 25, and I just bought my condo from my parents,” said tug-boat operator Charles Fannon, “even if those big numbers come back again and I could sell it for a huge profit, I don’t want to ever sell it because being in Ocean City is a huge part of my life.”

On the other hand, Ocean City’s growth has helped double and sometimes triple the investments of its non-residents property owners.

Dozens of email testimonials came into The Dispatch last week chronicling people’s personal stories of buying low and selling high.

“I bought my current unit in 1999 for $52,000,” said John Sheldon. “In 2008, it was appraised at $375,000. Now it’s probably at $250,000. Honestly, I don’t care what it’s worth, because this is ultimately where I want to be. For the past 20 years after tax season ends, if my clients want to find me on Fridays, I’ll be under the red umbrella on the beach in front of my house in Ocean City.”

While it may be highly unlikely that Ocean City will reverse its longstanding rule about non-resident voting rights anytime soon, one email response this week posed a question quoting an old saying that gets thrown around the resort from time to time.

“There are locals and those who’d like to be locals”, the email read, “so where do the non-residents fit in that sentence?”

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.