OCEAN CITY — The fate of an iconic building on the east side of the Boardwalk is hanging in the balance this week with the heirs to the property preparing an appeal and the city claiming the site for the public good.
Situated on the east side of the Boardwalk at South Division Street, the property has been home to different businesses and enterprises since at least 1912 and for the last several decades has been home to a Dumser’s Dairyland ice cream parlor. It is one of just a few buildings on the east side of the Boardwalk.
The ownership of the land on which the historic building sits was called into question last year after a 50-year agreement reached in 1966 between the heirs of the original owner, Nathan Rapoport, and the Town of Ocean City expired. The building is owned by Nathans Associates, which includes the heirs of Rapoport, and has been leased to Dumser’s for several decades.
In 1966, Rapoport reached an agreement with the town to tear down the existing structure and erect a new and improved building with a commercial interest, now Dumser’s, on the Boardwalk level with living quarters above on the second floor. The agreement expired in 1991 and Rapoport’s heirs, now Nathans Associates, exercised its option for another 25 years.
That second 25-year option on the 1966 agreement expired last year and the city asserted its jurisdiction over the property on which it sits in the right-of-way for Atlantic Avenue, or all of the property east of the deeded properties on the west side of the Boardwalk including the beach all the way down to the high water line at the ocean’s edge. The dispute over ownership, or in the town’s opinion, jurisdiction, ended up in Worcester County Circuit Court.
Nathans Associates essentially claimed the town had abandoned any ownership rights to the property after the building had sat on the site for over 100 years. The town asserted Atlantic Avenue, including the Boardwalk and all of the land east of it including the beach, had been dedicated to the public and was to be maintained by the municipality, regardless of the 1966 agreement which expired in 2016. The case went to trial in April and last month retired Judge Dale Cathell rendered an opinion in favor of the town of Ocean City.
As a result, Nathans Associates is enjoined from any use of the property after Oct. 31 and the plaintiffs are required to remove or demolish the structure by Dec. 31. Nathans Associates are currently preparing an appeal of the Worcester County Circuit Court decision. When the judge’s opinion was first reported last week, it touched off a firestorm of public opinion on the future of the historic and nostalgic building enjoyed by generations on the Boardwalk who called for it to be somehow saved. It has also led to the creation of a “Save Dumser’s on the Inlet and Nathan’s Building” group page on Facebook that had nearly 2,500 members as of Thursday.
Caught in the middle is Dumser’s, which does not own the building and merely leases it from the Rapoport heirs, just as it has done for decades. Mayor Rick Meehan responded to the public outcry this week, essentially asserting the property was never owned by Rapoport or his heirs and rather is located in the city’s right-of-way easement to Atlantic Avenue, and thus technically the property of the resort’s taxpayers.
“There has been a lot of discussion in the news and social media about the building built by Mr. Nathan Rapoport at 6015 Atlantic Avenue,” he said. “First, let me clarify the town’s actions with regard to this property are against Nathan Rapoport’s heirs, not Dumser’s. This property known as Atlantic Avenue had been dedicated to the public and, by an act of the General Assembly, was accepted as a public way and the town is responsible to administer the property for the benefit of the public.”
Meehan said the agreement reached in 1966 had expired after 50 years and it was now time for the town to assert its ownership of it on behalf of the taxpaying citizens.
“All rights to the property that Dumser’s former lessor may or may not have are expired,” he said. “Dumser’s has been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to the Rapoport heirs, while the true beneficiaries of this property, the taxpayers of Ocean City, have received very little in return.”
Meehan said in his statement the future of Dumser’s in that location and that building is still up in the air and likely won’t be decided until the anticipated appeal runs its course.
“The court has recently rendered their decision, however, the town has yet to decide how to move forward with the property,” he said. “Dumser’s future in this location could be part of that discussion, yet due to pending litigation, that discussion is on hold. After many years, the town now has the opportunity to manage and maintain this location in a way that will ensure fair return and the best interest for our taxpayers.”
Boiled down to its simplest terms, Nathans Associates essentially claimed ownership of the property because it has maintained the building on the site for over a century. Ocean City, on the other hand, is asserting its jurisdiction over the property because it lies in the Atlantic Avenue right-of-way deeded to the resort by an act of the General Assembly decades ago. The court ruled in favor the latter, but the Rapoport heirs are preparing to test that opinion with an appeal.
“The judge ruled in favor of Ocean City, ordering us to remove or demolish our building before the end of the year, well before our appeal will be decided by the appellate court in Annapolis,” said Rapoport’s granddaughter Mona Strauss in a letter to the editor this week. “This judge has also ordered a hearing before him in November on the city’s demand that we pay it all the rent we received since last September. This hearing will also be held well before our appeal is decided. And that brings us to the present. We will shortly be filing our appeal to the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis.”
In her letter, Strauss outlined the process by which her grandfather reached the agreement with the city in 1966.
“He contacted the City Council about his desire to build a new building on his property,” she said. “The result was an ‘agreement’ between the city and my grandfather, prepared by the attorney for the city. This agreement was not a lease. It was not a franchise. It was not a license. It began with the words ‘this agreement’ and it specifically stated that my grandfather’s building was ‘on ground that the city does not claim to own, but only administers.”
In her letter, Strauss said there were no provisions for removing or demolishing the iconic building at the close of the 50-year agreement reached in 1966.
“The agreement said absolutely nothing about what would happen at the end of the 50 years,” she said. “The agreement did not say that our family would have to leave after 50 years or that our building would be torn down. In the agreement, the city specifically conceded that it did not own the land and the city did not claim that it had any easement over the land on which my grandfather’s building sat. My grandfather entered into the agreement with Ocean City to get a permit to build his new building and buy peace for 50 years because he did not have the strength or money to establish his title at that time.”
For its part, Dumser’s is flattered and grateful for the outpouring of support for the historic Ocean City business following the judge’s opinion first reported last week. In his own letter to the editor released this week, Dumser’s owner Don Timmons outlined the history of the property and somewhat rebuked the city for essentially calling the Rapoport heirs squatters instead of Boardwalk pioneers.
“He and his descendants have occupied the present building for more than 100 years,” he wrote. “This is all that is left of one of our pioneers who took a chance on Ocean City when tourism was all about new businesses. I do not understand the dispute over ownership. I am not a lawyer, however, it seems unfair for the very city that Mr. Nathan invested in to take away what little his family has left. He should be honored for he contributed to Ocean City.”
In his statement, Timmons urged city leaders to resolve the issue and save the iconic building, if not for Dumser’s than for the family who took a chance on Ocean City in its nascent days.
“My family and I hope and pray that the good people at City Hall would listen to the outcry of the people who do not want this change on their Boardwalk and withdraw all claims to this property,” he wrote. “This is not for Dumser’s, but for the family who have invested five generations into this location.”
A letter from City Solicitor Guy Ayres to local attorney Joe Moore in 1991 outlines the town’s position at the expiration of the first 25 years of the agreement.
“Ocean City will not execute a quitclaim deed to Mr. Rapoport’s heirs for the subject property,” the letter to Moore reads. “It is the position of Ocean City that the subject property is held by the town in public trust as a dedicated right-of-way and that the license to use this area granted to Mr. Rapoport did not relinquish any rights of the public. Finally, the 25-year term of the agreement expires on Sept. 20, 1991. The Mayor and Council have determined that it is not in the best interest of the public to extend the lease term. Accordingly, your client should vacate the property on or before September 20, 1991.”
Of course, the second 25-year option on the agreement was executed at that time, which basically just moved the same issue back to where it is now 25 years later. A look at the original agreement executed in 1966 shows the city even then did not claim ownership of the property on which the building sits.
“Mr. Rapoport has for a continuing period of 54 years prior hereto occupied certain premises on the easterly side of Atlantic Avenue, or Boardwalk, near the easterly end of South Division Street,” the agreement reads. “The building so occupied by him is on land which the municipality does not claim to own in fee simple, but is on land over which the Mayor and Council have jurisdiction.”
However, the original agreement reached in 1966 made it known in no uncertain terms that the Rapoport heirs would not have a claim on the property in perpetuity.
“It is further agreed that all rights and privileges herein granted to Mr. Rapoport shall continue for a term of 25 years and may at that time be renewed for an additional period of 25 years if, in the opinion of the then Mayor and Council and their agent, the building is being properly maintained,” the original agreement reads. “This agreement is to be completely void 50 years from the date thereof.”
So the long and short of it is, the ownership issue will now likely be decided by a state appeals court and the historic building and its tenant, Dumser’s, will likely continue to operate as is until that appeal runs its course. If the appeal goes in favor of Ocean City, the town could decide to continue to lease the space to Dumser’s serving as a landlord.