OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved a conditional use amendment allowing for the installation of a grain silo at a mid-town brewery, but some on the Mayor and Council later regretted the decision amid concerns the company had not been entirely forthcoming over an existing silo.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council approved the findings of fact on a pair of requests to modify conditional use permits for the Ocean City Brewing Company at 56th Street that would allow the company to expand an existing front deck to allow for a greater outdoor dining and play area and install an indoor grain silo that would stand 34 feet tall with as many as 16 feet protruding from the existing roof line.
Earlier this year, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the conditional use permit requests submitted by the Ocean City Brewing Company after a lengthy public hearing that carried over from November into January. During the public hearing, the planning commission heard testimony from neighboring property owners concerned a grain silo protruding from the existing facility would greatly impact their views and ultimately their property values.
The commercial property owner has promised to disguise the silo as much as possible and assured neighboring property owners there would be little or no impact in terms of noise, dust or odors. To that end, the planning commission voted 4-2 last month to forward a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council, which got their chance to weigh in on Monday.
Councilman Matt James asked company representative Matt Rankin if the O.C. Brewing Company was already in possession of the grain silo. If not, he suggested there could be an alternative silo not quite as high that would meet the company’s needs in terms of the brewing operation while lessening the impact on the neighboring property owners.
“We’ve heard concerns from neighboring property owners,” he said. “Why can’t the silo be wider and shorter to minimize the impact?”
Rankin explained the company was already in possession of the silo. Upon further questioning, he told the Mayor and Council repeatedly it was his understanding the company was in possession of the silo and that it couldn’t be altered or switched out for a shorter one without great expense.
The issue of an existing silo or not became a point of contention throughout the debate on Monday. Councilman John Gehrig told Rankin he believed everybody wanted the company to succeed with the brewing operation and the silo should ultimately be approved, but continued to question if there was an alternative available if O.C. Brewing had not already obtained the silo.
“Look, I’m a customer and I want you guys to be able to brew beer and be successful,” he said. “I’m a fan, but this approval should be connected to if you have the silo already or not. If you don’t, maybe there’s an alternative that can make everybody happy.”
Property Rights Issue
Councilman Dennis Dare said the existing silo issue was secondary to the larger zoning issues for the property. The site is zoned commercially and for years has hosted different uses including a lumber yard for several years. Dare pointed out the property could be developed with a 50-foot structure from lot line to lot line.
“I don’t care if you have the silo or not, this comes down to property rights,” he said. “I would think the neighbors would like the O.C. Brewing Company to be successful. The way it’s zoned, they have the right to have a 50-foot building there. I think the existing building complements the views. If the business is not successful, then the property owner could look for another business that might not be as palatable.”
Dare essentially was telling the neighboring property owners the proposed grain silo could be the lesser of two evils if the property was eventually developed at his maximum allowance under the code.
“When it develops, it will develop 50 feet tall from lot line to lot line,” he said. “Folks complaining about the silo that stands 16 feet above the roof line wouldn’t see the sun until the afternoon. I think you have to be careful what you wish for.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman agreed the proposed silo could be less intrusive than a future development on the site and the maximum allowed.
“I agree with Dennis,” he said. “The area is commercially zoned and I remember when it was a lumber storage yard and what’s there now is decidedly better.”
A Manufacturing Site?
Hartman said secondary to the silo issue was the conditional use on the property. The current code does allow for some wholesale operation, but does not allow for bottling or canning beer for off-site sale. It does, however, allow kegs of beer produced at the brewery to be sold off-site. The same issue arose during the planning commission’s hearing.
“My concern is manufacturing,” he said. “There is no bottling or canning there, but there is beer being made and a lot of that is going off-site. If something is used for manufacturing, does it still conform with the zoning.”
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said the code was explicit about the types of uses allowed on the site as it is currently zoned, but said a brewing operation likely wasn’t considered when the code was written. Nonetheless, Neville was satisfied the proposed use met the intent of the zoning for the property.
“Brewing at the time wasn’t something largely considered when the zoning ordinance was written,” he said. “I think it’s consistent. It falls under the wholesale use allowed in the code.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said breweries are a use that should be encouraged in Ocean City and pointed to a similar operation further down Coastal Highway. DeLuca encouraged his colleagues to approve the findings of fact and send the issue back to the planning commission for site plan approval.
“When the planning commission brought this to us, we already set a precedent with a silo at 49th Street,” he said. “We’ve already lost one brewing company in Ocean City and we had three. I think this is something we need to approve.”
Gehrig at that point went back to the issue of whether or not the silo already existed.
“If you don’t have a silo already, would you consider getting a smaller one?” he asked.
This time, Rankin, who had said several times earlier he wasn’t certain if the brewing company already had a silo appeared to change his tune. Rankin said the Ocean City Brewing Company does have an existing silo at its facility in Bel Air and said it didn’t have a practical use at that location but was merely used to identify the facility as a brewery.
“We do have a silo,” he said. “It’s at our Abingdon facility and we’re going to bring that one down. The silo in Abingdon is more for aesthetics to make it look like more of a brewery and it will be moved to Ocean City.”
After considerable debate, the council voted 6-1, with Council Secretary Mary Knight opposed, to approve the planning commission’s findings of fact and send the silo issue and the deck expansion back to the planning commission for site plan review, which is the next step in the approval process. By approving the findings of fact, the Mayor and Council essentially washed their hands of the issue, but hours later during the council comments segment of the meeting, it was learned most of the elected officials still had heartburn over the issue of whether the company had already obtained the silo or not.
Remorse Over Approval
Gehrig asked if the Mayor and Council could get another look at the project if it was determined the company was not entirely forthcoming about an existing silo.
“Sitting here all this time now, I find it hard to believe that someone doesn’t know if they have an asset of that value or not,” said Gehrig. “If it comes to pass that it isn’t true, can it come back before us?”
Gehrig said an effort should be made to determine if the company already had a silo of the dimensions presented or not, and if they don’t, then maybe their proverbial feet could be held to the fire to make them consider a smaller, less impactful one.
“I think it would be pretty easy to prove,” he said. “I’ve been up here for going on three hours and that’s the one thing that is sticking in my craw. For them to say they don’t know if they have it, I mean, I know if a fork is missing from by cabinet and that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not knowing?”
Gehrig said the existence of a silo should be a sticking point in the approval process, although that ship had sailed somewhat when the Mayor and Council voted 6-1 to approve the findings of fact.
“I don’t know how much silos cost, but not knowing if you have an asset that size, I just find it hard to believe and if we investigate that and find that wasn’t necessarily the truth, then we should revisit it,” he said. “It’s been sitting in my gut now for two or three hours that someone doesn’t know if they have something.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed it appeared the company representative was not entirely forthcoming in the presentation.
“I don’t disagree,” he said. “You know I thought the whole presentation by the representative seemed to be lacking in substance or fact and it just didn’t seem to be very clear.”
Meehan said he also had been thinking back on the presentation throughout the entire two-plus hours since the council voted to approve the findings of fact.
“I wish we had talked about this and, like John, I have thought about this over the course of the meeting,” he said. “The transcript we rely on to make this decision is given to us by the hearing body, in this case the Planning and Zoning Commission, and they were questioned about having drawings and additional photos showing exactly what it was going to be.”
Meehan said the planning commission also had misgivings about the lack of pictures or renderings when they sent a favorable recommendation to the council.
“The planning commission made a point to make it part of the approval process that they would get a look at everything because for the third or fourth time, this particular entity has been before the commission and they haven’t brought forth all of what they have been asking for which is pictures, drawings and exactly what is going to be there,” he said. “So, I agree that I think we need to make sure what was presented to us is exactly what they’re going to go through with.”
Knight said she was concerned about the issue of an existing silo way back when the vote was taken hours earlier.
“I’m just glad everybody is talking about this now,” she said. “That’s why I voted against this.”
Hartman said he thought Rankin had made it clear the silo and the company’s facility in Bel Air would be transported to Ocean City.
“What I recall from the conversation, the gentleman that was under oath covered himself pretty well,” he said. “What did surprise me is he mentioned the silo is somewhere else in a different form. The silo is coming from a different location.”
Gehrig said that might be the case, but questioned what recourse the council might have if it determines later there is no existing silo.
“I understand the property rights issue,” he said. “That’s why I voted the way I did. They have a right to it. Maybe nothing comes of it, but I just wanted to know the procedural answer.”
Motion Must Stand For Now
Meehan asked City Solicitor Guy Ayres if the motion approved hours earlier could be reopened to allow for conditions to be added including the existence of the silo. Ayres said that likely wasn’t possible from a procedural standpoint, but if the company was found to be less than forthcoming, there could be some recourse for the Mayor and Council.
“I don’t know that you can do that,” he said. “I do think you could bring them back if you found them to be untruthful.”
For his part, James expressed some remorse for voting to approve the findings of fact without really nailing down the existing silo issue.
“I agree with everything Councilman Gehrig has said,” he said. “I voted for this because I don’t have a problem with the silo, but the presentation in my opinion was pretty shady. The guy was the operator, but doesn’t know if he has the silo or not. I regret not asking about it now. The problem I think we’re all agreeing on now is we were led to believe that the operator of the company didn’t know if they have the silo or not.”
Hartman attempted to clarify the existing silo issue, reiterating Rankin had said the silo at the company’s Bel Air facility would be transported to Ocean City.
“There was a silo that was in Ocean City at some point and now they’re saying they are going to bring in another silo from a different location,” he said. “I think they’ve presented all the facts.”
According to Ayres, the council had already approved the findings of fact, sending the silo and expanded deck requests back to the planning commission for site plan approval.