North OC Entertainment Complex Expansion Moving Ahead; City’s Planning Commission, Council Differ On Project Details

OCEAN CITY — Approval for a proposed expansion of an uptown entertainment complex proved to be somewhat of a moving target this week and in the process created friction between governing bodies.

In early February, the Ocean City Planning Commission had before it a request to expand the conditional use approval for a large parcel on the north end of town currently home to the Buccaneer’s Booty mini-golf and arcade complex roughly between 144th and 146th streets. The site currently hosts an outdoor 18-hole mini-golf course, arcade and laser tag facility.

Property owner and project developer Nolen Graves is seeking to add another 18-hole indoor golf course along with expanding the existing arcade and laser tag facilities. Over a decade ago, the property was approved as a conditional use in a largely residential neighborhood, but in order to complete the proposed expansion, the conditional use approval needed to be carefully vetted by the planning commission.

During a requisite public hearing earlier this month, the planning commission imposed a list of 16 conditions on the expansion. Among the highlights were requiring the business owner to have one supervisory employee at least 21 years old in each component of the business, the parking for the entire complex be in place before the new additions open for business, lights and noise associated with the business be contained on the property so as not to impact the neighborhood and adequate crosswalks and other traffic safety considerations in and around the property.

Typically, the planning commission forwards a recommendation on a conditional use to the Mayor and Council for approval and the elected officials hold sway over the final decision. Other issues, such as lighting, noise, parking and access points, for example, are handled by the planning commission during the site plan approval phase.

This week, however, in somewhat of an unconventional schedule, the Mayor and Council heard the conditional use presentation on Tuesday, and the planning commission heard the site plan approval presentation on Wednesday. The short turnaround and the substantive changes allowed by the council before the project went for site plan approval the next day created an awkward situation and caused some tension between the two bodies.

In simplest terms, the council on Tuesday changed some of the conditions imposed by the planning commission. Most notably, the council removed the requirement imposed by the planning commission to have at least one 21-year-old supervisor in each of the different elements of the multi-faceted business.

The council also allowed the expansion to be completed in phases with the required parking completed in conjunction with each phase. In addition, the council said the conditions regarding flashing lights and noise for the new phases were not necessary because the new elements in the expansion were indoors.

All in all, the conditional use expansion ultimately approved by the council was substantially different than the recommendations forwarded by the planning commission. In essence, the project returned to the planning commission on Wednesday for site plan approval had changed from what the planning commission had approved, and it certainly ruffled some feathers.

Tuesday’s Approval

When Graves and attorney Regan Smith appeared before the council on Tuesday for conditional use approval, they presented changes from what had been approved and recommended by the planning commission.

As Graves and Smith started their presentation, City Solicitor Guy Ayres took exception to some of the proposed changes that represented a departure from what the planning commission had approved following a public hearing.

“Were the residents informed?” said Ayres. “Were they notified about these changes? How does this council know the planning commission’s recommendation is valid with these changes? You’re asking for a change in the recommendation from the planning commission. You want to short-circuit and bring this before the Mayor and Council.”

Smith explained the expansion was now planned to be done in phases for a variety of reasons including time constraints with another summer season quickly approaching. While the planning commission expressed a desire to have all the required parking in place up front, the parking needed for each phase could be completed as needed.

“The proposal has been to phase in the changes to the site because all of it can’t be done before summer,” he said. “The discussion was to complete the parking needed for each phase of the project as needed in order to get the Certificate of Occupancy (CO) for each phase It’s the end of February and he wants to get something built by summer. Obviously, it can’t be built entirely by summer.”

Adult Employee Issue

When the planning commission approved the requested conditional use expansion earlier this month, it was adamant about having adult supervisory employees at each of the elements — the mini-golf, arcade and laser tag facilities. The planning commission went as far as to put an age minimum of 21 for the supervisory employees in its list of conditions for approval.

However, when the council reviewed the list of conditions on Tuesday, most believed the age requirements for supervisory employees were onerous and unnecessary.

“Why are we putting on staffing conditions, such as how many people, what age, what qualifications?” said Councilman John Gehrig. “Are we really getting involved in the staffing of a business as a condition of conditional use approval?”

Mayor Rick Meehan attempted to explain the planning commission’s reasoning behind the age requirement.

“The planning commission held a public hearing and they are the hearing body on this,” he said. “There will be a lot of young adults in those facilities. They want to be sure there is adequate supervision in those buildings.”

Nonetheless, Gehrig reiterated he believed the age restrictions imposed by the planning commission did not belong in a conditional use approval request.

“I just think this crosses the line,” he said. “It’s like we’re crossing over different branches of government. It just seems like an overreach.”

Councilman Matt James agreed the age restrictions imposed by the planning commission were onerous.

“It does seem arbitrary,” he said. “Why make it 21-year-olds? I know some 25-year-olds that I would want in a supervisory position less than some of the 18-year-olds I know.”

The council agreed to strike the condition in the planning commission’s recommendation regarding the age of supervisory employees. When the project came back to the planning commission on Tuesday for site plan approval, the resort’s planners were less than keen on the change.

“I have a serious issue with them not being required to have adult supervision,” said Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley. “I want to know what legal recourse we have. I’m extremely disappointed with this because I think it’s a health and safety issue.”

Graves and Smith downplayed the age restriction issue somewhat, characterizing it as more of a clarification than a big departure of the planning commission’s intent. However, Buckley asserted the age restriction was a well thought out addition to the approval.

“That was not a clarification,” she said. “That was very clear as a condition of approval. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. With the size of this operation, to say you don’t need adult supervision is disingenuous.”

Graves then questioned the planning commission’s authority to place age restrictions on employees.

“You’re putting an age limit on this that I don’t think is appropriate,” he said. “Is it the city’s responsibility to monitor our business? That’s how this evolved. Is the city going to come in and card our supervisory employees?”

Buckley explained the repercussions of not having adult supervision in a vast entertainment complex largely used by kids.

“We’re not going in there every day and checking on the age of your employees,” she said. “But if you have a 15-year-old in charge in there and something bad happens, you can get shut down.”

Graves assured the planning commission he was on top of the supervisory issue without an age mandate as a condition of approval.

“I’m not going to have a 16-year-old running my business,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen.”

Parking, Crosswalks, Other Issues

The existing on-site parking meets the requirements for the early phases of the project and the developer has adequate space available to meet the parking standards in future phases.

However, the planning commission and staff expressed a desire to have all parking completed up front. On Tuesday, the council allowed the developer to complete the required parking as needed for each new phase.

“I wanted to require the parking for the whole thing, but I didn’t win that battle,” said Zoning Administrator Frank Hall. “If he gets the CO for the entire building, he needs to meet the parking requirement for the entire building.”

Graves explained he wanted to build the expansion of the arcade and laser tag facility first and do the project all at once although he would not likely use the entire building in the first phase.

“I want to build the entire building now and only use maybe half of it this summer,” he said. “It makes sense economically for me to do that. The unused part will be divided by a wall. I won’t buy all of the machines at first, which is why we want to do it in phases.”

Planning Commissioner Peck Miller expressed concern the undeveloped parking lots adjacent to the residential areas would become a staging area for new construction or a dumping area of construction materials and equipment.

“A lot of the letters we received raised concerns about the unfinished lot on the residential side becoming a construction dump yard,” he said. “We don’t want equipment and steel and materials sitting around there all summer. That’s why we wanted the parking done all at once. One of the things we were alluding to in the conditional use approval is we didn’t want a construction site in the front yard of those residences.”

Graves explained the lot near the residential areas would not become a construction site, but said the equipment and materials stored on it now are essential to his daily operation.

In terms of lighting and noise associated with the new mini-golf course, arcade and laser tag facility, the Mayor and Council concluded the new expansions were all indoors and it shouldn’t be an issue. The long and short of it is, the Mayor and Council approved the conditional use expansion on Tuesday and the planning commission ultimately approved the site plan on Wednesday, although it wasn’t entirely happy with the changes in the project.

“We put things in place that were very pertinent for this project,” said Miller. “Then, you went back to the Mayor and Council and those things have been changed. I’m not sure what to do. This is no longer the project we looked at and approved.”

Smith said, “With all due respect, you all have done a great job with this. It’s the Mayor and Council’s right to make changes.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

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.