New OC Zoning District Proposal Removed From Comp Plan; Short-Term Rental Definition Sought

OCEAN CITY — A new R-1A zoning district that would essentially ban short-term rentals in Ocean City’s single-family residential communities will not be included in the revised comprehensive plan, but the issue is far from over.

In the wake of growing complaints about vacation rentals in some of Ocean City’s traditional year-round single family home neighborhoods, resort officials about three years ago began a debate about creating a new R-1A zoning designation that would somewhat insulate the year-round communities. However, after considerable and often contentious debate, it was determined the issue would best be addressed in the town’s five-year comprehensive plan update now nearing its conclusion.

The planning commission has been working on the five-year update of the town’s comprehensive plan for several months and that process is nearing its inclusion. However, included in the draft comprehensive plan is language that renewed the debate about the potential R-1A district. It’s important to note the comprehensive plan is largely a broad look at all future growth and development in the resort and not a mandate to adopt certain elements including the possible creation of an R-1A zoning designation.

After the Mayor and Council tabled the discussion on the R-1A district and deferred to the update on the comprehensive plan as the appropriate place to take it up again, the focus changed from creating a new zoning designation to more stringent rental license requirements, maximum occupancy calculations and other actions including increased public outreach and education about the sections of the code regarding short-term rental already on the books.

The stopgap measures appeared to have achieved the desired goals for the most parts with fewer complaints in the last few years, at least publicly, on the short-term vacation rentals in the traditional year-round neighborhoods. Through the town’s Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe Housing (PRESS) committee, the focus changed from considering a zoning change in the traditional year-round neighborhoods to R-1A, which would greatly alter the zoning codes in some neighborhoods, the focus changed to education and enforcement.

“In the last year, we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in terms of the number of complaints and enforcement activities,” Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville told the planning commission on Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean the problem has been solved necessarily.”

Neville outlined some proposed alternatives for the planning commission, including removing any language regarding the R-1A district altogether, or Option 1; ensuring the viewpoints of the residential property owners and the investment property owners are protected, or Option 2; or stepping up other alternative strategies that clearly define what short-term rentals are and where in the zoning code they are most appropriate. After considerable debate, the planning commission voted for a hybrid of all three essentially, with the language removed from the comprehensive plan and concerted and expedited effort to define short-term rentals and where they are and are not appropriate.

Neville pointed out the creation of an R-1A district that prohibits short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods would have to come from the town in order to be effective. He pointed out it wouldn’t necessarily work if it was requested from the individual communities that desired the zoning designation. For example, if a community such as Mallard Island, where much of the debate began, wanted to request an R-1A zoning designation that would prohibit short-term rentals, all of the property owners in that community would have to agree.

“My professional opinion is this R-1A option would only work as intended if it was employed as a town-initiated comprehensive zoning change for areas zones R-1.,” he said. “The reason I say that is that’s the only way to have every property regulated under the ordinance. Essentially, seven landowners couldn’t get together and zone the eighth landowner to a different district. That being said, a landowner-initiated system has some obvious procedural problems.”

Neville pointed out any further discussion of an R-1A zoning district would have to come after clear definitions for short-term rentals were established. For example, is the four months plus a day standard established for when room tax starts getting collected be the measuring stick or would it be weekly rentals or even weekend rentals.

“I’m convinced we need to approach this from a different direction,” he said. “We need to define what we mean by a short-term rental. Are we talking about four months and a day or are we talking about a three-day weekend or something in between?”

Neville pointed out the entire R-1A discussion basically only affected a small portion of the entire resort.

“It doesn’t affect everyone,” he said. “The R-1 zoning area is only seven percent of the entire developable land in Ocean City. Only 348 rental licenses in town are in R-1 districts, or about five percent. We know we’re not talking about affecting a large number of properties.”

Neville said the current R-1 zoning designation and other sections of the code could be modified to prohibit short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods without creating the new designation. The Coastal Association of Realtors (CAR), among others, have voiced concern the creation of an R-1A designation could limit or prohibit a property owner’s right to rent his or her residence and, perhaps more importantly, stifle investment in the year-round neighborhoods. However, Neville said that was never the intent of the proposed R-1A zone.

“The question wouldn’t be taking away someone’s opportunity to rent in the R-1 district,” he said. “I’m not sure that opportunity is available today under the current definition.”

Neville said many of the issues with the complaint-driven request to create the R-1A zone were limited to certain areas. He said the intent of the proposed zoning designation was never to limit any property owner’s ability to rent their residence on a longer-term basis, which he believes should be encouraged.

“We recognize the weekly rentals and weekend rentals are causing the most disturbances in the neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re not talking about someone’s ability to rent a single family home for a period of one month to one year. We want them to have the ability to rent a home on a monthly basis to people who will live there and raise kids there and that sort of thing.”

That touched off a larger philosophical debate about the sanctity of the quiet, year-round neighborhoods in the resort. Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor said despite the relatively low number of rental licenses in R-1 areas, the impact is greater considering the neighboring properties. She said the R-1A issue struck at larger quality of life issues for local residents.

“You say there are only 348 of these, but there are also 348 properties on all other sides that are affected,” she said. “The problem with enforcement is it’s after the fact after you’re up all night. You can call the police or call code enforcement the next day, but that doesn’t help in the moment. It doesn’t improve quality of life if you have to call the police all the time.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said Ocean City is defined as a year-round community despite the somewhat small number of year-round residents relative to the spike in population in the summer season.

“I don’t think Ocean City can be Ocean City if we don’t have people living here on a year-round basis,” she said. “I also don’t think we need this entertainment 12 months out of the year. I think we need a break in the offseason. We are grateful they come because we couldn’t live here without them. It would be too expensive for the majority of us to live in this town.”

Buckley said the challenge was striking a balance with the zoning code that at least attempted to satisfy everyone.

“The biggest thing is to come up with these definitions and codify these things so people buying property know what they’re dealing with,” she said. “I don’t know how else we can do this and make everybody happy. We can’t make everybody happy.”

Buckley said simply creating an R-1A zoning designation would not likely solve the issue. She also said the comprehensive plan was not likely the most appropriate place for its inclusion.

“The comprehensive plan is not going to give anybody relief,” she said. “The R-1A is not going to give anybody relief. The relief is going to come from the real estate community abiding by the rules and regulations. It will also take the residential community to call in complaints and let our enforcement people know what’s going on.”

Buckley also said she believed the short-term rental issue in the residential neighborhoods needed to be carefully vetted.

“I feel strongly somebody should be able to live in an R-1 district year-round and not feel threatened by new people coming in every other day,” she said. “I’m strongly against weekend rentals in an R-1 district and I’m not crazy about weekly rentals in the R-1. Maybe a month is fine, or a seasonal rental, so I get a chance to know who’s there a little bit. We need these items in the code to make it work and make everybody happy.”

Planning Commissioner Chris Shanahan said the planning body specifically, and the town’s elected officials in general, were not ready to move forward with the R-1A district with so many questions unanswered.

“In my opinion, the R-1A is not ready for prime time,” he said. “There is so much work to be done. I just don’t think it needs to be included in the comprehensive plan when it is so rough and so vague. I wouldn’t want anyone reading our comprehensive plan to learn Ocean City in unfriendly to investing and scare them away when we’re still in the process of defining the problem.”

Buckley remained adamant about the importance of protecting residential neighborhoods from short-term rentals.

“If you want year-round people here to run this town and have it be a family community, which is what we advertise to be, people need to be able to live here and raise a family,” she said. “We need that seven percent to keep the community atmosphere we advertise it to be. It’s why people want to come here. They want to come here because it’s a family resort.”

Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson said creating an R-1A zoning district might not solve the problem.

“Peaceful and quiet enjoyment of your home is a basic property right,” he said. “We all agree on that. The question is how do we get there? I just don’t think a ban on short-term rentals is going to get the results you think it might.”

Buckley said the planning commission’s mission was to protect the interests of all involved.

“Our interest is the health and welfare of the entire town,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been tasked to do and we’re trying our best to do that. I just find it interesting we want to be a family community, but we don’t want to support families. I just think that’s a little odd.”

After considerable debate, the commission voted to adopt a hybrid of all three options presented. For example, Option 1 called for the removal of all language in the comprehensive plan regarding the R-1A zoning designation. The adopted hybrid also calls for an expedited attempt to clearly define short-term rentals and how best to address them in the town’s code.

CAR, which pushed for the removal of any R-1A language in the comprehensive plan, was pleased with the outcome, although they acknowledged the short-rental debate was far from over, according to a statement from CAR President Don Bailey on Wednesday.

“We are happy to see the planning commission agree that the comprehensive plan is not the appropriate means of establishing a new zoning district,” he said. “The town has not formally established the definition of short-term rental, nor have they ironed out how R-1A will be implemented. Will it apply to all R-1 neighborhoods or will it be granted on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, and will 100 percent of the property owners need to opt in? We completely understand this discussion is far from over and our association will continue to monitor town proceedings and advocate for private property rights.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.