Multiple Options Vetted At First Motorized Task Force Meeting

Multiple Options Vetted At First Motorized Task Force Meeting
A crowd gathers around a vehicle on Baltimore Avenue in late September 2018 during the annual car event weekend. Submitted Photo

OCEAN CITY — Just about everything was on the table during last week’s first meeting of the special task force formed to explore the often troublesome motorized special events in Ocean City, and while no firm decisions were made, there appears to be progress.

For over three hours last Thursday, the 27-member panel, a cross-section of town officials, business leaders, members of various organizations, special event promoters, local residents, seasonal visitors and other stakeholders debated possible solutions to some of the issues associated with the motorized special events. Meehan, who appointed the group, opened the proceedings with a mission statement of sorts for the task force.

“It’s a big task,” he said. “There is no magic answer. We’re looking at every possible way to make these events

The meeting began with a presentation from the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and Chief Ross Buzzuro along with some of his command staff.

Among the most stringent of the police commission’s recommendations included in a proposed action plan this fall, was sending a letter to the H20i promoters requesting the annual event be moved completely out of Worcester and Wicomico counties. In terms of the spring and fall Cruisin events, the police commission recommended eliminating the Boardwalk parades and, perhaps more importantly, discontinuing the rental of the convention center and the Inlet parking lot for the spring and fall events.

Also recommended was working with state legislators to create a special event zone, similar to work and school zones, with increased fines, stronger impound regulations, an expansion of video surveillance systems and increased enforcement.

Proposed Solutions

In his presentation, Buzzuro systematically addressed each of the commission’s recommendations and their relative ease or difficulty to implement. One suggestion from the police commission was deploying the National Guard during some of the special events, although Buzzuro dismissed that idea.

“The National Guard is not an option for us,” he said. “In my experience, there have only been a handful of times when the National Guard has been deployed. We’re not at that level here.”

In terms of increasing the amount of law enforcement on hand during the events, Buzzuro pointed out the town’s police force is already supplemented with allied agencies from all over the Eastern Shore. He said despite the overwhelming police presence, there are still too many violations in varying degrees of severity to handle in many cases.

“We instruct every law enforcement officer to prioritize enforcement,” he said. “There are literally hundreds of violations taking place simultaneously. Our officers have been told to prioritize. There are limitations on that.”

Buzzuro said simply adding even more police officers during the special events would not likely ease the situation.

“We’re already dealing with extraordinary numbers of law enforcement,” he said. “Throwing more law enforcement at this isn’t the solution.”

In terms of writing more citations, Buzzuro explained Maryland does not share reciprocity with many of the states from which the motorized event attendees come, which makes enforcement more challenging.

“We are dealing with an imperfect model,” he said. “Visitors from out of state aren’t always dealt with to the extent Maryland residents would be dealt with.”

OCPD Officer Glenn McIntyre said writing more citations was not necessarily part of the solution, particularly with the H20i event. In many cases, the H20i attendees accept citations like badges of honor.

“We can write citations all day long,” he said. “We’ve had situations where the driver takes the citation and basically says ‘thanks, it was budgeted.’ Citations are not part of the solution.”

One of the more drastic recommendations from the police commission called for curfews during some of the special events, but again, Buzzuro dismissed that idea as impractical.

“In terms of curfews, it would be unconstitutional,” he said. “Even if it passed, it would force us to make mass arrests. That’s not in anyone’s best interest.”

As part of the OCPD’s presentation, videos were shown from some of the various motorized special events with vehicles surrounded by large crowds of spectators egging on drivers to do burnouts and other illegal activity. Buzzuro said the videos illustrate just how dangerous the events have become in many cases.

“Our biggest fear is that one of the vehicles is going to get out of control and it won’t be pretty,” he said. “People will die. There’s no doubt about it.”

When asked about higher fines for violations, Buzzuro explained reckless driving is the strongest offense available and it often comes with prosecution challenges.

“Reckless driving is the highest offense for this type of activity,” he said. “It’s not a ‘must appear.’ There has to be a wanton, willful violation and it’s very difficult to prosecute. Most judges won’t find defendants guilty.”

Resort hotelier and task force member G. Hale Harrison questioned if there was a legislative remedy for stronger laws on the books for the activities associated with the motorized events.

“Obviously, this is a problem,” said Harrison. “We do have strong representation in Annapolis. Maybe we can get the law changed to address this behavior.”

Buzzuro said that is an option, but any law change would have to be applied statewide.

“We are exploring the possibility of getting the law changed,” he said. “It will be an uphill battle. This is unique to Ocean City, but a law change would pertain to the state as a whole.”

There was also considerable debate about stronger impound regulations. If a vehicle is found not to be street-legal, it can be impounded. The owner can retrieve the vehicle, but it can’t be driven from the impound lot. There was some discussion about changing the regulations to allow impounded vehicles to be held for the duration of the event.

“If a vehicle is deemed not street legal, it can be towed and impounded,” said McIntyre. “The owner can come back and pay to get it out, but if it’s not street legal, it can’t be driven. It would have to be towed or taken out on a flat-bed.”

Other recommendations from the police commission called for traffic-calming devices such as temporary speed bumps, single lane closures and other measures. Buzzuro explained the department has had discussions with the State Highway Administration (SHA) about some of the proposed solutions, but they all come with challenges.

“We’re working with State Highway to look at changing the roadway dynamics,” he said. “The thing to remember is we have to move traffic in and out of Ocean City.”

Retired SHA engineer and local resident Gene Coffiell, a task force member, said temporary speed bumps were not a solution.

“You can’t arbitrarily put speed bumps on state roads,” he said. “That’s not an option. They become a problem for emergency vehicles.”

Increasing the fines for certain violations has been a possible solution bandied about, but again, Buzzuro said any fine increases would apply to the same violations across the state.

“The fine schedule is uniform across the state,” he said. “We can’t deviate from that schedule. A local ordinance is not possible because we’re bound by the state’s fine schedule.”

One task force member suggested the town’s public safety aides (PSAs) and other auxiliary officers could help with enforcement. Buzzuro, however, said the size and intensity of the crowds at some of the events made that solution impractical and unsafe for untrained officers.

“Our trained police officers are on the front lines and were treated without respect,” he said. “There were times when officers were assaulted. I would not put untrained PSAs out there. We’re dealing with a lot of rowdy, agitated people.”

Another suggested solution called for inspection stations, or checkpoints of sorts, where police officers could stop vehicles as they enter the resort. Buzzuro said that wouldn’t be practical or effective because it would take officers away from handling the enforcement issues directly.

“We’re talking about thousands of vehicles,” he said. “At any one time, there are countless violations going on in Ocean City. To have an officer inspect one vehicle and the time it would take for that may not be the best use of resources.”

Buzzuro also said stopping or even slowing the flow of traffic could create more problems.

“With the congestion and the traffic shut down, the agitation level goes and fights start to break out,” he said. “There times when cars waited hours to leave the Inlet lot. Purposely slowing down traffic is not the answer. It’s a catch 22.”

One of the major problems with some of the motorized special events is the huge crowds that gather in private property parking lots to watch the vehicles and, in many cases, egg them on to do illegal activity. Buzzuro said one solution could be to have the private property owners such as the hotels and condominiums, for example, help law enforcement by policing themselves somewhat.

“We also want to have discussions with private property owners and the hotels and condos,” he said. “We need help from their security to police their lots from a trespassing standpoint. If we could get more assistance from private property owners, that would help greatly. If they need assistance and want somebody removed, we can come in and remove them for trespassing.”

OCPD Corporal Ray Austin agreed the private property owners could help with enforcement, at least from a trespassing standpoint.

“We’re not asking the hotels and motels to be the police,” he said. “We’re just looking for a hand on this. Most of the people don’t belong on the property. If their security people can help, that would improve the situation.”

Delmarva Condominium Managers Association President Joe Groves said the condos would like to be part of the solution if it would help.

“I would love a list from the police department about what the condos can do,” he said. “We have extra security and we have high-tech cameras. It works when people know it’s there. This is where it starts. We know the police department can’t be the entire solution, so what can we do to help?”

Promoter Makes Presentation

When the OCPD had concluded its presentation last Thursday, TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel and his staff had the opportunity to address the task force and make their own presentation. TEAM Productions produces the spring and fall Cruisin events, and Rothermel and his staffers are members of the task force. Rothermel said part of the problem with the spring event is it comes at a time when the resort has lied largely dormant for a few months.

“It’s the big wake-up call for the season,” he said. “From today until mid-May, there is not one single event this big. It’s like going from zero to 60. We go from a quiet beach town to fast and furious almost overnight.”

Rothermel pointed out a lot of the illicit activity associated with the Cruisin events takes place largely outside of the organized venues. He said limiting the number of participants or shrinking the size of the events might not curtail the activity of the hangers-on.

“In 30 years, none of that activity takes place on our leased spaces,” he said. “What happens when a guy is turned down? He goes out on the street.”

As a lifetime resident of Ocean City, Rothermel said he too is appalled at some of the activity.

“I’m aghast at what I see on Baltimore Avenue,” he said. “We have to find a way to make it better.”

Rothermel said he could reduce the number of registered participants, but by and large they are not the ones causing many of the problems.

“We stop at 3,200,” he said. “We’d be willing to reduce it to 2,000 or whatever. Pick a number. Would that help? I’m not sure it would stop the cars from coming.”

Rothermel agreed legislatively creating special enforcement zones, similar to school or work zones where fines are doubles or even tripled, could be part of the solution.

“Is there a way of creating a construction zone for the entire town?” he said. “That could lead to increased fines and increased enforcement. We had an event that had a great reputation and it is getting sullied by the hangers-on. We would welcome all of these things.”

Rothermel agreed all of the motorized special events need to be tamed, if not the official sanctioned activities associated with the cruising events. In a nutshell, he said having all of the vehicles on a narrow barrier island with all of that pent-up energy was largely the culprit.

“We have to give the tools to the police to do their jobs,” he said. “There has got to be a way to address their need for speed. We need to find ways to release all of that pent up energy. We’re exploring different ways to keeps guys off the streets.”

Rothermel said TEAM Productions was already working on possible solutions that could ease the traffic on the resort’s roadways. He has had cursory discussions with a speedway in Delmar that could host burnout pits, time trials and other activities to get some of the event attendees out of Ocean City proper at least part of the time. He also suggested other family-friendly events such as drive-in movies, for example, to get some of the vehicles off the streets. He said he was open to all suggestions because the integrity of his events has been called into question.

“In the last five years, this event hasn’t changed much,” he said. “At the same time, the number of hangers-on has increased. We’re here at the table because we want to make the event last. We want to be good corporate partners.”

Ocean City hotelier and task force member Sal Fasano agreed more diverse activities spread over a larger area could be part of the solution.

“H20i cancelled this year and they had nowhere to go,” he said. “So what did they do? They stayed out on the streets all night. I like the idea of different events and venues. Spread it out over a larger area.”

Councilman and task force member Matt James agreed.

“I don’t think we’re going to find a blanket solution,” he said. “The best idea I heard all day was to spread it out, whether that means the drag strip at Delmar or a burnout pit in Willards. We need some of these events and venues to pull them out of town or at least some of the time.”

‘The Elephant In The Room’

While much of the discussion focused on the spring and fall cruising events, all agreed the biggest problem child was the H20i event in the fall. The official event, which has never been sanctioned by the city, was cancelled this year and the attendees came anyway. Councilman and task force member Tony DeLuca essentially summed up what the panel’s overall thoughts were on H20i.

“I strongly support five of these six events,” he said. “The elephant in the room is H20i. It needs to go away. Tell every resident to buy toilet paper and food and hunker down for four days, just like it was a hurricane or a nor’easter or 36 inches of snow. We’re going to have speed bumps and lane closures. It needs to go away.”

Groves said creating a special event enforcement zone with larger fines and other penalties could be the solution. While it would take an act of the General Assembly, Groves believes it could be accomplished sooner rather than later.

“The solution to H20i is the special event zone,” he said. “Everybody says that is a long-term solution, but I don’t believe that. I believe we can get a bill done this year. That’s the solution. That’s the tool.”

Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel said her organization has strong ties in Annapolis that could be brought to bear if the desire was to create special enforcement zones.

“The chamber has legislative priorities and we’d be happy to share our resources,” she said. “We’re going to need to show evidence. The videos we saw today would help. Is there any evidence that tragedies have happened in other communities?”

Groves also suggested stronger impound regulations could be solution, particularly with the H20i event. He laid out a bare bones assessment of some of the solutions debated last Thursday.

“Strengthening the impound rules, that’s a tool,” he said. “Working with the hotels and condos, that’s another tool. Increasing the fines is a tool. If the H20i guys get a $1,000 fine, they’re not coming back. Most of those cars are only worth $3,000.”

Restaurant owner and task force member Greg Shockley agreed the H20i event presented challenges different than those of the cruising events. He said H20i participants’ collective indifference to the laws and the associated citations and fines separated them from participants in other events.

“Look at the age of the cruiser guys,” he said. “It’s an older demographic and less destructive. The H20i guys are younger and they’ve proven they don’t care. They come because we said we don’t want them here.”

After three-plus hours of debate, Meehan outlined a potential plan of action on a handful of different options. Among them were having the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (HMRA), the Chamber of Commerce and the condo associations work with the OCPD on developing strategies for assisting with law enforcement by policing their own properties.

Meehan also said the task forces and the OCPD would continue to explore legislative remedies including a special event enforcement zone, stronger fine schedules and strengthening the reckless endangerment statute. He also said the operation of the impound lot would be further explored. He also instructed the promoters to continue to pursue alternative activities such as off-island burnout pits, drag strips and other activities. Meehan said the task force would reconvene sometime in January and updates and progress reports on some of those options would be provided.

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.