Tourism Officials Seek More Enforcement Over Major Rental Industry Change

OCEAN CITY — Resort tourism officials believe stricter enforcement, rather than a new ordinance or definition, is the answer to the growing issue of short-term rentals in traditional single-family neighborhoods.

Last week, the planning commission began anew discussions about the perceived growing problem of short-term vacation rentals in traditional single-family neighborhoods. About three years ago, in the wake of growing complaints, town officials considered creating a new R-1A zoning designation that would somewhat insulate year-round residential enclaves from the noise, traffic and parking issues associated with some transient vacation rentals.

That proposed zoning designation was shelved amid some controversy with the understanding the issue would be revisited during the comprehensive plan update. With the comprehensive plan update nearing the finish line, the planning Commission last week decided a necessary first step was a clear definition of a short-term rental and honed in on Worcester County’s standard of four months and a day. Under the county’s code, anything less than that is considered a commercial use with all that entails including a rental license and collecting and remitting room tax, for example.

The city’s planners instructed its legal staff to research the legality of implementing the four months and a day standard in its single-family neighborhood zoning districts atop the resort’s pyramidal zoning classifications including the R-1 district. On Monday, the issue was taken up again during the resort’s tourism committee meeting. Tourism Committee Chair Mary Knight informed members of the planning commission’s most recent actions on the issue.

“The planning commission is waiting for an answer from the attorneys,” she said. “We need the planning commission to address this quickly and get a recommendation to the Mayor and Council.”

Some of the concerns about short-term rentals in the single-family residential neighborhoods involve three- or four-day rentals of even weekly rentals and some of the issues those bring to the traditional year-round neighborhoods such as noise, traffic and parking, for example. The belief for many is the traditional neighborhoods should be reserved for year-round residents raising families, for example, and should be insulated somewhat from the trappings associated with the bustling summer resort town.

Running counter to that, many believe people buy property in Ocean City with the expectation of deriving some rental income from them. Property rights are central to the short-term rental issue, depending on what side of the fence, so to speak, one falls on. Some believe a new zoning designation, or perhaps a new short-term rental definition would not be needed if the ordinances already on the books were more strictly enforced. On Monday, Tourism Committee member and Ocean City hotelier Michael James said some of the issues could be resolved with stricter enforcement.

“We have laws for noise and we have laws for bad behavior,” he said. “I’d hate for Ocean City to become unfriendly for weekly rentals.”

Tourism Committee member Todd Ferrante agreed stricter enforcement of the sections of the code regarding short-term rentals could supersede the need for a new zoning designation or definition.

“I think the issue comes from lack of enforcement,” he said. “That is what brought this to the surface. That’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Regardless, finding a new definition or creating a new zoning designation prohibiting short-term rentals in the single-family neighborhoods tiptoes around the property rights issue. The Coastal Association of Realtors (CAR) has come out strongly against the creation of an R-1A zoning district or any definition that prohibits short-term rentals in the year-round neighborhoods. Tourism Committee member and Councilman John Gehrig said on Monday he was inclined to agree.

“If I bought a property, I’d have an expectation for certain property rights,” he said. “It seems like a right could be taken away arbitrarily with this.”

Gehrig said he wasn’t certain a new zoning designation or new definition of a short-term rental was the answer to the problem. Clearly, there are some abuses with vacation rentals in the single-family neighborhoods, but stricter enforcement of the sections of the code already on the books could solve some of the problems, he said.

“We have an ordinance in place and people are violating that ordinance,” he said. “Is having another ordinance the solution?”

Gehrig said the short-term rental issue had crossed over from a planning and zoning problem to something much larger.

“It is a tourism issue,” he said. “We need to get some answers. We have a vast number of rental agencies in town and this is their livelihood.”