No Changes Near For Ocean City’s Short-Term Rentals

OCEAN CITY — Solving the perceived problem of short-term vacation rentals in traditional, year-round residential neighborhoods remains a top priority for resort officials, but it now appears the issue will not be addressed by this summer.

In the wake of growing complaints about vacation rentals in some of Ocean City’s single-family home neighborhoods, resort officials for the last few years have been wrestling with creating a new R-1A zoning designation that would somewhat insulate year-round enclaves from the traffic, noise and parking issues associated with transient rentals. After a backlash from some segments in the community including the real estate rental industry, the notion of creating a new R-1A zoning designation was shelved in favor of exploring ways to tweak the existing zoning ordinance and redefine some of the decades-old definitions.

The effort to clearly define short-term rentals and their place in the town’s pyramidal zoning scheme has proven to be challenging. The planning commission earlier this month began anew the process of defining short-term rentals and possible changes to the town’s zoning code. One possibility was borrowing from Worcester County’s existing code that defines short-term rentals as four months and a day.

Under the county code, any rental less than four months and a day crosses over the line between residential and commercial and requires rental licenses, collecting and remitting rental taxes and all that a commercial use entails. The problem in Ocean City, or at least the perceived problem according to many, is the abundance of short-term rentals, whether they are a long three-day weekend, a traditional one- or two-week family vacation or something in between.

Before the planning commission went any further with attempting to define short-term rentals in the residential zoning districts, it sought an opinion from the planning body’s attorney Jon Bulkeley on the legality of restricting short-term rentals in the residential districts and the definitions of short-term rentals in general. On Wednesday, Bulkelely reported back to the planning commission after extensive research.

“It became apparent to me early on that the idea of generating a definition of a commercial use is not the best way to go at this,” he said. “This is a new phenomenon quite frankly. We looked at 14 different jurisdictions and you have these trial court level cases that are going both ways on this stuff. It’s really pretty fresh.”

While his research took him in several different directions on the issue, the big takeaway from Bulkeley on Wednesday is that renting homes in an R-1 district does not appear to cross the line to a commercial use.

“To keep it short, renting these houses in an R-1 district is not considered a commercial use under Maryland law,” he said. “The third-party benefit to a landlord does not outweigh the actual residential use.”

Bulkeley suggested it would likely take some action by the Mayor and Council to ultimately address the short-term rental issue.

“In my opinion, at this point the Mayor and Council can amend the zoning ordinance to define these areas far more clearly than they are now,” he said. “The charter is clear. The Mayor and Council has a right to rewrite the entire zoning code if desired. The Mayor and Council could amend the zoning code to address the R-1 short-term rental issue. I’m not sure it should be tagged as the four months and a day. It might be more like 30 days or 60 days, but that can be determined.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said it would take some time to wade through the volumes of Bulkeley’s research and make an informed opinion.

“We just need to come together and figure out what’s best for Ocean City,” she said. “This is our town. I need some time to take all of this in. I think we have a lot of smart people here and we have a lot of people trying to make this work. Obviously, we’re not changing anything for this year.”

Buckley said it would take a cooperative, concerted effort to address the issue.

“We need everybody involved in this,” she said. “We need the rental companies to keep checking that the right people who are supposed to be there are there. If all of our rules were followed, we’d be in a great spot. Unfortunately, that’s not happening right now.”

Buckley added it might be as easy as simply defining some sections in the existing code.

“This is going to take some time,” she said. “Maybe nothing will change, who knows, maybe some big change will come of this. Maybe we can find a way to tweak some of these definitions to make them a little more modern so that it works for us.”

Buckley said while the issue wouldn’t be resolved in time for this season, it was not going away any time soon.

“I still have a commitment to this town and maintaining the R-1 sensibility,” she said. “We still want people to live in this town and that’s not going to change. That has been my position all along. There have been many cases over the years where they’re trying to move into the residential districts with commercial and we need to address that.”

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.