OCEAN CITY — Ocean City officials this week approved on first reading an expansion of the town’s amusement overlay district to accommodate a future high-end, state-of-the-art haunted house, but voted to put back in a lot owned by Trimpers left out by the Planning Commission earlier this month.
In early November, the Planning Commission recommended an expansion of the resort’s amusement overlay district, which allows certain uses not permitted in other zoning designations. The proposed extension would take in several properties in the downtown area, including the old H2O underage dance club on Worcester Street, which is proposed for a state-of-the-art haunted house.
The intent of the proposed extension is to bring the H2O underage club property into the amusement overlay district to accommodate its redevelopment as a haunted house, but in order to be a contiguous district, four other properties were proposed for inclusion including Sportland, Marty’s Playland, the Dough Roller and a lot on the west side of Baltimore Ave. that formerly hosted the Tank Battle amusement and is owned and maintained by Trimpers as a maintenance yard and storage area for its historic amusement park.
Earlier this month, the Planning Commission recommended including the H2O site along with the three others on the east side of Baltimore Avenue but gave an unfavorable recommendation for the inclusion of the old Tank Battle lot for a variety of reasons.
For example, the Planning Commission heard testimony from neighboring property owners, including the historic Henry Hotel and the Son Spot Ministry, who were comfortable with the Tank Battle lot in its existing use as a maintenance and storage area, but were concerned with what it could become in the future if included in the amusement overlay district.
The neighboring property owners raised concern a future change in use, including a potentially large and noisy amusement, could negatively impact the neighborhood and remove a de facto buffer between the amusement areas and the otherwise quiet residential areas. In addition, the Planning Commission voiced concern about a potential change in use encouraging more pedestrian traffic across Baltimore Ave. from the amusement areas and Boardwalk on the east side.
At the public hearing, the Trimpers testified they had no short-term or long-term plan to change the use of the old Tank Battle lot and that its current use as a maintenance and storage yard was an integral part of the historic amusement park’s daily operation. In addition, the Trimpers voiced concern leaving the Tank Battle lot out of the amusement overlay district could lead to higher taxes on the property.
Several years ago, the state began to look into the Trimpers Amusement Park, which covers much of the south end of the Boardwalk, as what it could be in the future if redeveloped with condominiums, for example, and considered a change in the tax structure for the property. After a private and public outcry over the potential loss of such a significant piece of Ocean City history, the state made concessions to the Trimpers as long as the property remained an amusement park.
Despite the Trimpers’ testimony they had no intention of changing the use of the old Tank Battle lot, the Planning Commission voted not to include the lot in its recommendation for expanding the amusement overlay district. Instead, the planners voted to include the H2O club to accommodate the new haunted house, along with the other three properties including Sportland, Marty’s Playland and the Dough Roller.
However, when the proposed expansion of the amusement overlay district came before the Mayor and Council on Monday, the elected officials voted to put the Tank Battle lot back into the proposed expansion with some conditions added. Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith relayed the Planning Commission’s concerns to the Mayor and Council, but added the Trimpers had no plans to change the current use and exclusion from the overlay district could expose the property to significantly higher taxes in the future.
“It’s pretty much reduced to a maintenance yard and parking area for the amusement park,” he said. “There would be a substantial tax difference if it is not included in the amusement overlay district and they would like it to be included.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said he understood the neighboring property owners’ concerns, but said he believed including the Tank Battle lot in the amusement overlay district was logical given its juxtaposition with other amusements in the area and its historic use.
“My concern is maintaining an amusement use down there,” he said. “It’s been an amusement as long as I can remember and looking at that lot, I think it’s appropriate to include in this.”
Smith said the Mayor and Council could reverse course and put the Tank Battle lot back into the proposed expansion with conditions.
“In light of what you’re saying, if you feel that is appropriate, you’re able to put conditions on it and you can have the Planning Commission monitor any future change in use,” he said.
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed the Tank Battle lot could and probably should be included in the overlay district expansion with safeguards in place to monitor any proposed changes in its use in the future.
“If can be included in the overlay district only as it is currently being used,” he said. “If they want to do something else, they could come back to the Planning Commission.”
Dare said the current zoning of the property could open it up to all sorts of uses in the future and including the Tank Battle lot could at least ensure the town maintained some oversight on any proposed changes.
“It could be a win-win,” he said. “It can protect the residents on that block when you consider all of the other uses that could be there, but it would also allow the Trimpers to continue to use it as it is. Remember when they were going through all that with the state, the outcry was huge, not only in Ocean City but statewide.”
The Mayor and Council voted to approve the extension of the amusement overlay district recommended by the Planning Commission, but added the Tank Battle lot back into the expansion with the condition any proposed change of use in the future would have to come back for approval by the Planning Commission.
Meanwhile, the Mayor and Council’s approval opens the door for a change in use for the old H2O underage club to an upscale haunted house. Steelhead Productions, which has developed critically acclaimed haunted houses in other areas of the state, most notably Field of Screams in Olney and DC Screams in the nation’s capital, intends to repurpose the old underage nightclub on the north side of Worcester Street for its latest production, tentatively referred to as OC Screams.
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 H20 underage dance club. Prior to that, it was run as the Gentleman Jim’s billiards and amusement parlor. Steelhead Productions owner Dan 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.
Dionisio said the haunted house would be spread out on two floors with 13 rooms, each with uniquely different scary attractions, on each floor. Steelhead’s haunts include actors in costume as the visitors walk through the venue.