OCEAN CITY — In no uncertain terms, Ocean City law enforced promised strict enforcement and zero tolerance during the unsanctioned, but still anticipated H2O International (H2Oi) event expected to arrive in the resort next week.
A motorized special event task force meeting on Wednesday began with Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officials presenting strongly worded social media posts from unsanctioned H2Oi visitors promising the typical mayhem, lawlessness and disrespect for the town and law enforcement beginning next week despite the official event being moved to Atlantic City.
H2Oi representatives announced in April the official event was being relocated to Atlantic City, much to the relief of town officials and residents. However, in the months since, postings on several social media sites have vowed many of the hangers-on, or those not registered for the official event, still plan on coming to Ocean City starting next week and through next weekend.
At Wednesday’s task force meeting, OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro said the department and its allies have been carefully monitoring social medial sites and still expect a strong as ever presence in Ocean City next week. As a result, the special event zone, created by legislation in the wake of one of the worst motorized special events seasons in recent memory last fall, will be implemented starting next Tuesday.
The special event zone includes reduced speed limits, stronger enforcement, higher visibility and much steeper fines, similar to highway work zones or school zones. Buzzuro said on Wednesday it will be all hands on deck for his department and its law enforcement allies starting early next week and throughout the event.
“We have individuals that remain brazen and they are determined to come into town with ill will,” he said. “There will be absolutely zero tolerance and every one of our officers will be working during this event in some capacity.
For years, the H2Oi event, self-billed as the “laid back” two-day Volkswagen and Audi event, was held at Fort Whaley campground on Route 50 west of Berlin. Unofficially the annual event took place on the streets of Ocean City, especially Coastal Highway informally called “the strip” by attendees.
To be fair, it’s important to note the H2Oi event was never sanctioned by the Town of Ocean City nor did it bill itself as an event held in the resort. However, in recent years, the annual event typically held in late September and early October has been associated with lawlessness and recklessness that spurred the creation of a task force to begin exploring ways to curb some of the illicit behavior associated with some of the motorized special events.
Again, fairly or not the H2Oi event was labeled the black sheep of the motorized special events amid a flock of events that aren’t all entirely squeaky clean. The official H2Oi event at Fort Whaley was well-organized, generally calm and peaceful and included the Volkswagen and Audi enthusiast “family” that registered and participated in the sanctioned events.
However, like many of the special events, it was the thousands of non-registered participants who came to the resort during that weekend with all manner of tricked-out and modified vehicles that did not register for H2Oi that caused most of the problems in Ocean City.
Buzzuro said Wednesday the OCPD’s full deployment will be supplemented with support from allied law enforcement agencies including the Maryland State Police, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
“We will be out in full force from start to finish with this event,” he said. “The strategy is strict enforcement and high visibility. We’re hopefully going to see a reduction here with the official event now in Atlantic City, but we are preparing for the status quo. We’re preparing as if thousands are still coming because that what our intelligence indicates.”
The special event zone will be established on all roadways in Ocean City starting next Tuesday when the early unsanctioned H2Oi participants start to arrive. In advance, the signs currently indicating speed limits of 30 miles per hour in some areas and 35 mph in others will be swapped out with 30 mph signs. In addition, signs and other message boards in and around the resort area will alert visitors and residents to the creation of the special enforcement zone and its implications.
“We are already starting with the zero-tolerance message,” said Ocean City Communications Director Jessica Waters. “The message is, you’re certainly welcome here, but if you’re coming here to break the rules, you’re going to face strict enforcement and hefty fines.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said getting a consistent message out early and often was paramount to the success of the special event zone.
“The goal is get the message out as early as possible,” he said. “It’s not just for the visitors, but our residents as well. We need to make sure we let the residents know what our plan is.”
The special event zone will be in place from Tuesday, September 25 through Sunday, September 30. The signs will be set back to their original speed limits on Monday, October 1 and then replaced again on Tuesday, October 2, when another special event zone for the fall cruising event begins. Some on the task force on Wednesday asked if the laborious task of switching out the signs two days in row could be avoided, but OCPD Captain Mike Colbert explained the two events were separate and one solid special event zone for about two weeks was not allowed under the language of the legislation.
“Legally, we have to take them down because there is no special event on Monday,” he said. “I don’t know that there is any way around that. The law as written clearly defines a special event, so the reduced speed limit signs will come down on Monday and go back up on Tuesday.”
At any rate, with the official H2Oi event moving to Atlantic City, the hope is the event’s hangers-on will eventually stop coming to Ocean City altogether in the future. Meehan said with strict enforcement and heft fines issued this year, maybe those who create many of the problems will think twice about coming back in the future.
“Hopefully, they’re not coming next year and things will calm down,” he said. “Maybe we can wear them down with this. We hope the event in Atlantic City is highly successful and they keep migrating north.”