OCEAN CITY — While the second meeting of the resort’s special task force formed to explore motorized special events was long on proposed solutions and short on firm decisions, it now appears ending the H20 International (H20i) event is the top priority.
The 27-member task force, created by Mayor Rick Meehan, largely picked up where it left off last month with just about everything on the table. For example, the debate was renewed about having condominiums, hotels, motels and other businesses assist the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) by policing their own properties and preventing trespassing and other illicit behavior. Other solutions reiterated on Wednesday included spreading the motorized special events with other activities outside of the resort to relieve the pressure on traffic and provide attendees with alternatives to just riding up and down Coastal Highway.
Perhaps the most important action proposed that is already taking shape is working with the state legislature to adopt laws allowing for special enforcement zones within the resort during motorized special events with higher fines and penalties akin to school zones and highway work zones.
Finally, the troublesome H20i event, which was officially cancelled this year but thousands of lawless attendees came to Ocean City anyway, was addressed with OCPD wanting nothing to do with the event.
Private Sector Partnerships
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.
One solution discussed again on Wednesday could be to have the private property owners, such as the hotels and condominiums, help law enforcement by policing themselves and reporting illegal activity to the police. It was learned on Wednesday some cursory discussions between the OCPD and the private sector have already been held and there has been some progress, but it will likely take a unified effort from all business owners and condo associations.
“I would hope all of the businesses would realize how important this is,” said Meehan. “Everybody needs to work together. If not, we’re going to continue to have problems.”
Delmarva Condominium Managers Association President Joe Groves said most of his members were willing and able to help and that he believed the hotel industry and other private businesses were willing to follow suit for the most part.
“A lot of the condos are doing it already and most hotels do, too,” he said. “I think 95 percent of the businesses are going to buy into it. Most people want the events here. They’re going to buy into it without being mandated to do it.”
- Hale Harrison of the Harrison Group, which operates several hotels and restaurants in the resort, said his company was willing to do its part.
“We want to buy into it,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Groves said it will take a unified effort by all in the private sector to affect real change.
“We have to have one voice and one message,” he said. “We all want the events, but we need to be unified.”
The idea of special enforcement zones in Ocean City was first broached last fall and reinforced at the task force’s first meeting in December. The concept is to create special enforcement zones during the motorized special events wherein the fines for illegal activity could be doubled or perhaps tripled. The task force also suggested a change in state law providing a bigger hammer for law enforcement with stiffer penalties for reckless driving.
OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro said the department and the city solicitor have been working with the town’s delegation in Annapolis, including Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, to craft legislation to accomplish those goals.
“We’re in the midst of preparing legislation,” he said. “We’re optimistic about getting it done this year. Some elements of the legislation would create a special enforcement zone in designated areas throughout town. The component is reckless endangerment. That would give us what we need for stricter enforcement.”
Meehan said the proposed bills were being prepared and it would likely take a concerted effort by task force members to push them through in the current General Assembly session.
“The bill is in legislative services,” he said. “They are drafting a bill and they’ll send it to our city solicitor for review. When the bill is dropped, we’ll need to go up and testify. It’s a big step, but it’s not unrealistic for that to happen this year.”
One member asked what the effective date would be for new legislation if passed by the General Assembly this session. Some bills have an effective date of July 1, although most become effective on Oct. 1, or outside the motorized special event season in the resort for this fall.
“They’re looking at ways to expedite that,” said Meehan. “They understand the urgency with this.”
Buzzuro said the legislation if successful could create special enforcement zones in different areas of the town where the fines and penalties could be enhanced. However, Meehan said his understanding of the intent was to make the entire town a special enforcement zone and not just known trouble spots.
“I thought our goal was to make the whole town a special enforcement zone,” he said. “We don’t want to have people saying ‘we’re out of the special zone so hit it.’”
Spreading Out Events Discussed
As in the first task force meeting in December, representatives from TEAM Productions, which produces the spring and fall Cruisin events, were on hand on Wednesday to provide an update on some of the solutions they have been working on.
Among the solutions discussed were finding alternative activities for the registered attendees of the sanctioned events and the hangers-on that could relieve some of the pressure on the city’s roadways. TEAM Productions representatives told the task force they had productive discussions with a speedway and drag strip in Delmar about hosting events where attendees could blow off some steam and show off their vehicles.
In addition, TEAM Productions has plans to expand on its sanctioned events within the resort. Among the suggestions explored were concerts at the Performing Arts Center, more events at the convention center and even a drive-in movie with a hot rod-related theme, among others. In addition, TEAM representatives said they would put links on the Cruisin event websites to the town’s ordinances and include stern warnings about violating the laws. Task force member and resort-area business owner Gabby Mancini said that is all well and good, but pointed out those not registered for the sanctioned events would not likely attend or heed the warnings.
“All of that sounds great,” he said. “I think the problem is not with the car show. The problem is with those who aren’t registered for the event.”
Meehan said it was somewhat of a misconception that all registered attendees behave and follow the laws while all problems are created by the hangers-on.
“Let’s not give all participants a free pass,” he said. “With 3,200 registered participants, if only 20 percent create problems, that’s still over 600 cars. There is no magic answer.”
Councilman and task force member Tony DeLuca agreed exploring alternative events outside of Ocean City should be explored.
“The focus has to be on more events outside of Ocean City,” he said. “We need to explore and exhaust those opportunities before considering new things in town.”
However, task force member and resort restaurateur Cole Taustin said there must be a balance between keeping the special events in town and not stretching them to the point business is affected.
“Taking events out of Ocean City is like taking money out of Ocean City,” he said. “It defeats the purpose of the special events. I understand the point, but there has to be a balance.”
Meehan said perhaps more importantly is striking a balance between accommodating the special event attendees and qualify of life for the residents and non-attendees.
“What we should never forget is all of the people in town who are not part of the events,” he said. “They want to go out on those weekends, but they don’t. By breaking it up, that would allow those non-participants to enjoy the town. Everything we can do to offer alternatives should be explored. It has to be about finding a balance.”
Mancini questioned why the events were scheduled during the prime weeks of Ocean City’s shoulder seasons.
“May and September are the best months Ocean City has to offer,” he said. “Why do we have these motorized events in those months? They can drive their cars anywhere and they can drive their motorcycles anywhere. I think we need to move the events out of May and September. They’ll still come in October.”
However, Harrison said simply moving the events would not make some of the problems associated with them go away.
“We’re committed to finding a solution and there is no magic bullet,” he said. “With all due respect, the commitment is to fix the problem, not just punt it to April or October. I respectfully think it took 30 years to build this event and now there are problems. Let’s look at ways to fix those problems.”
Meehan agreed the town had changed considerably since the Cruisin events were first established decades ago.
“The town has changed in the last 25 years,” he said. “The first goal is to make these events more palatable. No matter when they are, we can take some of these steps to make them better.”
Groves pointed out the Bike Week event has gone much smoother for residents and other visitors since the sanctioned events have been spread out regionally.
“Bike Week used to be a nightmare before the events were spread out,” he said. “I think that positive approach works. They bring 200,000 motorcycles to Delmarva and Ocean City, and I don’t think most people realize just how big that event is because it’s spread out. I think we can get there with this. I really think it will work.”
H20i ‘A Challenge’
While much of the discussion focused on the spring and fall Cruisin events, all agreed the biggest problem was the H20i event in the fall. The official event, which has never been sanctioned by the city, was cancelled this year and thousands of attendees came anyway.
Meehan said H20i presents unique challenges because it is largely driven by social media.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s a challenge we haven’t faced before. People are still going to be here one way or the other. You have to be careful of what you wish for.”
While TEAM Productions is at the task force table, H20i does not have a representative on hand. The official event was cancelled last fall and there is no indication it has any intention of coming back, but again, it is fueled largely by social media and thousands of enthusiasts might return if there is an event or not.
“H20i is a little different,” said Meehan. “We don’t have a promoter in here and we’re not sure there is a promoter. It’s a social media-driven event. We have a little more time on that one because it’s further out, but I think the special legislation will help with that.”
Some task force members suggested the H20i attendees were not much different than their Cruisin brethren aside from age differences. Others suggested the event should be embraced and acceptance from the town would likely curb some of the attitude and bad behavior. However, the OCPD had a starkly different opinion of the event.
“The blatant lawlessness and criminality is getting worse,” said Buzzuro. “I want everybody to realize that there is very little value to the community with what they bring here. I can assure you it’s not going to get any better unless we do some of these things. It’s only going to get worse. I understand there are just a few bad apples, but this is the whole bunch.”
OCPD Captain Michael Colbert painted a rather disturbing picture of the height of the unsanctioned H20i event last fall from personal experience.
“I was out on the street on that Saturday night,” he said. “I’ve worked here 30 years and I’ve never seen the disrespect to our officers and our town that I saw that night. We never lost control, but it was close a couple of times.”
Colbert said the tech-savvy H20i weekend attendees were aware of the activities of the OCPD and its allied partners. He pointed to an incident during which a vehicle attempted to run down two officers, resulting in the officers firing shots at the suspects.
“They were monitoring our radios and when we had that incident and they knew our resources were dedicated to that, they took advantage of it,” he said. “They knew we were taxed with that incident.”
Colbert said law enforcement agencies from out of the region and out of state were warning the OCPD as the H20i attendees passed through their jurisdictions.
“We got calls from law enforcement agencies out of state that were pulling over cars with disrespectful things about Ocean City and the OCPD on them,” he said. “They were giving us a heads up that it was coming our way.”
Groves said Colbert’s statements about the H20i event were reason enough to not invite it back. That is a tricky proposition, however, because the town has never sanctioned the event nor has it extended an invitation to attendees and yet thousands showed up anyway.
“The statement from the captain about almost losing control should scare the hell out of everyone in this room,” he said. “I just don’t think we should consider keeping them here ever.”
Buzzuro said each of the special events present unique challenges, but the H20i event brings a special breed of lawbreaker.
“The vast majority are here to violate the law,” he said. “That’s hard for a group of law-abiding citizens to grasp. With most motorized events, they’ll push it to the limit, but don’t cross that line generally. With H20i, they push right through that line.”