OCEAN CITY — The town’s amusement overlay district will be expanding despite a last-ditch effort by a downtown property owner to have one of the parcels proposed for inclusion left out.
The Mayor and Council on Monday approved on second reading an ordinance amending the amusement overlay district, which allows certain uses not permitted in other zoning designations. The extension will take in several properties in the downtown area, including the old H2O underage dance club on Worcester Street, which is now proposed for a state-of-the-art haunted house.
The intent of the extension is to accommodate the redevelopment of the property specifically as a haunted house, but in order to have a contiguous district, four other properties were added, 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 the Trimper family as a maintenance yard and storage area for its historic amusement park.
After a marathon public hearing in October, the Planning Commission voted to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council with the exclusion of the old Tank Battle lot for a variety of reasons. The Planning Commission gave an unfavorable recommendation for the Tank Battle lot after hearing from neighboring property owners, most notably Gary Steger of Son Spot Ministries on Worcester Street who also lives adjacent to the Tank Battle lot that has been in his family for a century or more.
When the council approved the amusement overlay district expansion on first reading earlier this month, it was agreed to include the Tank Battle lot, despite the unfavorable recommendation from city planners. With the ordinance up for second reading on Monday, Steger returned to reiterate his concerns with including the Tank Battle lot.
“I agree with the expansion, but I oppose including the Tank Battle lot,” he said. “That was a compromise during the Planning and Zoning hearing. There was some discussion of extending it to Wicomico Street, but they thought it was important to maintain a buffer with the residential areas. The same thing applies here, in my opinion, with Baltimore Avenue where you have my house and the Henry Hotel. The Planning Commission called it incompatible.”
At the earlier hearings, the Trimpers said they operate the lot as maintenance and storage and for state inspections of the various rides and amusements. The Trimpers said the lot is a critical part of their operation and that they had no intention of changing its use, regardless of an amusement overlay district expansion. However, while Steger supported the current use, he continued to voice concern over what it could become in the future if included in the overlay district expansion.
“I’m trying to balance their interest with my property’s interest and that of my neighbors,” he said. “I intend to live there the rest of my life and my family has owned the property for 100 years. My house shakes four times per ride and we don’t want another ride there. We want to maintain the buffer zone.”
Despite assurances any changes in the lot’s current use would have to come back before the Planning Commission and ultimately the council, Steger urged the elected officials to leave it out.
“I’d feel a greater level of protection if it were left out,” he said. “Don’t cross Baltimore Avenue and don’t bring the amusement overlay district into our neighborhood.”
Councilman Matt James commiserated with Steger’s concerns.
“I don’t think I’d want an amusement park right next to my property either,” he said. “Why did we go against the Planning Commission recommendation in the first place?”
Councilman Dennis Dare explained his intention to leave the Tank Battle lot in the expansion was two-fold: to protect the Trimpers from a potential change in its tax assessment and to protect the interests of Steger and other neighboring residential areas including the historic Henry Hotel. Dare was referring to an attempt several years ago to assess the Trimper amusement park at is best potential use for tax purposes, which threatened the future of the historic park.
“I brought it up thinking it would give a higher level of protection to Mr. Steger,” he said. “That tax issue is resolved for now, but if that should come up again in the future, if they don’t have the zoning to support keeping it as it is, they might decide to dispose of the property and there are things allowed in the current zoning that are far more impacting than what is there now. I thought it was a win-win.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said including the Tank Battle lot in the amusement overlay district did not represent a major departure from its use historically.
“As a child, I remember playing Tank Battle on that site, so there was always an amusement there,” he said. “Everything around you has a commercial use.”
Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith attempted to explain the Planning Commission’s reasoning behind leaving out the Tank Battle lot.
“There was some consideration of pedestrians crossing Baltimore Avenue in that area,” he said. “In addition, they didn’t think it was compatible with the neighborhood.”
Local attorney Regan Smith, speaking on behalf of the Trimpers, explained the evolution of the amusement overlay district and the tax situation with the historic amusement park. Smith said the amusement overlay district was created as a means to encourage and preserve amusements in certain areas, most namely the Trimpers’ park, the pier and Jolly Roger’s. The amusement overlay district would allow park owners to swap out rides and make other changes without always coming before the town for approval.
In 2007 when the recession hit and Maryland was looking to expand revenues in the face of a faltering economy, state tax assessors began assessing properties at their highest possible use, and the best possible use for historic Trimper’s amusement park at the foot of the Boardwalk was considered condominiums.
Facing relief from potentially rising assessments, which threatened the existing amusement park enjoyed for generations, the Trimpers sought, and ultimately gained, a legislative remedy that would preserve the family’s downtown properties, including the Tank Battle lot, as an amusement park with the requisite property tax assessment, Smith explained. Inclusion in the current amusement overlay district would preserve that designation for the Tank Battle lot.
“We don’t want these lots not to be considered part of the amusement park,” he said. “We want to preserve that.”
Smith reiterated the Trimpers have no plans to change the current use of the Tank Battle lot and explained it remains an integral part of the park’s operation.
“The Trimpers have coexisted with their neighbors for 100 years and have no intention of changing that philosophy,” he said. “Any proposed change would have to come back for a review. That is written into this.”
Smith said the Trimpers understood Steger’s concerns, but urged the council to leave the Tank Battle lot in the expansion.
“We don’t want to disturb his use,” he said. “That’s just one residence in several blocks and the Henry Hotel is only used a couple of weeks out of the year. We want to respect their uses, but not allow them to dictate the expansion of the amusement overlay district.”
After considerable debate, council unanimously approved the expansion including the former Tank Battle lot.