OCEAN CITY — A bill introduced in the General Assembly creating special event zones with enhanced penalties aimed at deterring activities associated with the resort’s motorized special events had its first hearing in a Senate committee this week, but no action has yet been taken.
On Tuesday, Senator Jim Mathias, along with Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro and a coalition of other stakeholders from the community testified on behalf of Senate Bill 872 in front of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The bill would allow speed limit reductions in areas designated as special event zones. The bill’s language states specifically the local authority may “reduce established speed limits in the special event zone after a determination that the change is necessary to ensure public safety.” A person convicted of violating the speed limit posted in the special event zone is subject to a fine not exceeding $1,000.
The bill also defines a wide variety of violations in the designated special event zones that could be subject to enhanced penalties. For example, the bill defines violations as reckless driving, aggressive driving, races or speed contests, skidding, spinning of wheels and excessive noise.
On Tuesday, Mathias, who introduced the legislation in the Senate, led the local delegation in testifying in favor of the bill. Mathias explained the bill had been drafted as statewide legislation, but he had amended it to make it a local bill applicable only in Ocean City or other designated areas if that was the desire of the committee. Mathias had obtained a letter of advice from the state Attorney General’s Office in support of the legislation as a local bill.
Mathias introduced the bill on the Senate side, while Delegate Mary Beth Carozza introduced the bill on the House side. The same coalition of local representatives was expected to be back in Annapolis on Friday to testify on behalf of House Bill 1406.
On Tuesday, however, it was the Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee that heard the first testimony on the cross-filed legislation, and Mathias led off with an illustration of just how important the bill is for the town of Ocean City.
“This is a very important bill for Ocean City,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate in Ocean City to have special events. This would create a special event zone very much like a construction zone or a school zone.”
Meehan provided a brief history of the motorized special events in the resort beginning with the first Cruisin event nearly three decades ago.
“Twenty-eight years ago, we started these special events in Ocean City and the Cruisin event was one of the first,” he said. “Twenty-eight years ago, there were few people in Ocean City in May. During that first event, there were 160 classic cars and we thought they were everywhere. Now, the event has grown to the point there are 3,200 registered attendees. The problem is there are thousands that come in conjunction with these events and many of them have very little respect for our community and our laws.”
Meehan also explained the impacts of the unsanctioned and uninvited H2Oi event.
“We have another event that is the H2Oi event that is social media driven,” he said. “It is not supported by the town, nor is it even invited to town, but they come anyway. They have little regard for pedestrians or other traffic. This bill provides another tool that our officers can use to enforce the laws in Ocean City and hopefully mitigate some of the problems.”
The Senate Committee members came armed with tough questions about the legislation. Senator Wayne Norman (R-35, Harford and Cecil counties) asked about the existing speed limits within Ocean City and how they would be reduced if the bill was approved. He questioned the validity of handing out speeding tickets for going 40 mph in a special event zone in which the speed limit was reduced to 30 mph, for example.
“I don’t have any problem with what you want to do,” he said. “I do have a problem with somebody getting a $1,000 fine for going 10 mph over the speed limit.”
Meehan explained the proposed fines were the maximums and a judge would have the discretion of imposing the maximum or something less. He also explained simply canceling the events was not palatable given their economic impact on the shoulder seasons in the resort.
“We know a question is why don’t we just cancel these events,” he said. “They have a tremendous economic benefit to Ocean City. If we cancel these events, those that are causing the problems will still come. It would not solve the problem.”
Senator James Brochin (D-42, Baltimore County) questioned the sanctioned versus unsanctioned aspect of the events and a perceived preference for some over others.
“I’m looking at this from a different angle,” he said. “It seems kind of arbitrary that if government likes and endorses a certain event, then there is one set of rules. You mentioned the VW event and I’ll take you at your word on that especially if they don’t have respect for police officers. As I listen to this, I have to wonder if this will be used in a way that’s discriminatory to a certain sector.”
Meehan said the use of special events zones during motorized events would be another tool for law enforcement and would not be used capriciously.
“Obviously, that is not the intent at all,” he said. “We’re basically looking at four events and I understand your concern, but this is strictly to address events of this size and nature that have proven to be an issue.”
For his part, Mathias told the committee the intent of the legislation is not to discriminate against any one special event.
“This does not come with the discretion of liking or disliking,” he said. “If you afford us this bill, it will be administered unilaterally. Our community does not allow the exercise of liking or not liking.”
TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel, who produces the spring and fall Cruisin events, also testified on behalf of the bill.
“It seems counterintuitive for someone from the private sector to stand here and say we want more legislation for automotive events, but that’s exactly what we’re here for,” he said. “We’re here to advocate for increased fines and increased tools in the tool chest for public safety to curtail some of that extracurricular activity. I promote some of these events, but I’m also a resident of the town.”
During a meeting on Thursday between the Chamber of Commerce and the OCPD along with other stakeholders, Meehan briefed attendees on Tuesday’s hearing.
“If somebody gets a $70 ticket, they don’t care,” he said. “They wear it like a badge of courage. We want to make that badge more expensive.”
In response to a question from the audience about the possible turnaround time on the bill, Buzzuro explained it had been introduced as emergency legislation. It should be pointed out the bill’s passage as emergency legislation would require a three-fifths vote from both the Senate and the House.
“The intention is to pass it as an emergency bill,” he said. “That would allow us to implement and have it in place for the spring events.”
Buzzuro also provided his perception of how Tuesday’s hearing went.
“We didn’t see a lot of opposition,” he said. “Overall, I think they looked favorably on it. It’s moving in the right direction.”