OCEAN CITY — A wetlands mitigation project at the Ocean City Municipal Airport came in with just one acceptable bid at $1.4 million, or over two times budgeted, resort officials learned this week.
As part of the town of Ocean City’s capital improvement plan for its municipal airport, a two-phase project to expand the facility and make certain safety improvements is in the planning and development stages. However, in order to complete the first phase of the project, some trees have to be cut along with other impacts to non-tidal wetlands on the airport property. In total, a little over six acres would be impacted and a mitigation area of at least that size must be created.
In simplest terms, an in-kind amount of non-tidal wetlands must be produced to replace the wetlands and other environmentally-sensitive areas impacted by the two-phase project at the Ocean City Municipal Airport. However, resort officials learned this week the mitigation area must be located in the same watershed as the airport per Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) rules, and as a result, the mitigation area will cost over two times as much as the town budgeted for the project.
Ocean City budgeted $600,000 for the airport mitigation project and the recommended bid has come in at $1.4 million for an area within the coastal bays watershed. There was a second bid that came in closer to the budgeted $600,000, but that mitigation property is located in Dorchester County and, therefore, is not eligible, according to MDE rules.
Ocean City Municipal Airport Manager Jaime Giandomenico told the Mayor and Council on Tuesday about the comparatively high cost of the only eligible bid for the mitigation project.
“It’s significantly higher than what we programmed it for,” he said. “The other bid was in our ballpark, but after consultation with MDE, the mitigation must take place in our watershed. There aren’t many other sites available in our watershed. This one is quite higher, but this is the best we can do for our location.”
Giandomenico told the Mayor and Council the second bid was closer to the budgeted $600,000, but because of geographical constraints, it wasn’t eligible. When asked why the second bidder would submit the bid for a property in Dorchester County, Giandomenico explained it was hoped the MDE would consider bending the rules because of the huge disparity in the cost.
“The other bid was from Dorchester County,” he said. “The respondent took their chances, but the MDE really hasn’t shown a lot of flexibility. If that’s what the rules say, that’s what they want. We tried increasing the amount and changing the ratio, but I think we’ve exhausted our options.”
The two-phase airport expansion and improvement project is funded with a 75 percent ration from the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA). Because the bid for the mitigation site came in so high, funds earmarked for the second phase must be moved over to fund the first phase. As a result, the size and scope of the second phase might have to be reduced, at least until the funding stream catches up. Giandomenico said there was no alternative because the mitigation was mandated in order for the first phase to begin.
“We can reduce the scope of work in the second phase,” he said. “We’re doing this because we have to. We have to remain EPA-compliant. They are usually satisfied as long as you are making progress.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said the snafu illustrated the disparity of property values in the different watersheds.
“I guess what we learned is property in the coastal plain is two-and-half times more expensive than in Dorchester County,” he said.
Councilman Wayne Hartman asked if there was any consideration given to having the state take ownership of the Ocean City Municipal Airport in the future, relieving the town of the high cost of maintaining and operating it.
“Having an airport in Ocean City is vital for the MAA’s air transportation system,” he said. “At some point, for a small town like Ocean City, is there ever a time when the state steps up and considers making that a state airport? Is there a time to have that conversation?”
However, Giandomenico all but dismissed the idea of the state taking over the municipal airport.
“It’s not likely,” he said. “The state does own BWI and the Martin Airport, but those are the only ones in Maryland they own. I don’t think there is any impetus to do that. The best way they can help us is to fund our projects at 75 percent.”
The council reluctantly voted 6-0, with Council President Lloyd Martin absent, to approve the $1.4 million expenditure for the airport mitigation project. Giandomenico said there was no real alternative, but moving the funding around was difficult.
“It’s kind of a painful pill to swallow,” he said. “We’d rather spend our resources on construction and expansion projects. We did try every avenue and we did our best to convince MDE, but it wasn’t successful.”