OCEAN CITY — Wider sidewalks throughout town has been a long-standing goal for resort officials, but the requirement was formalized this week with a code amendment passed requiring eight-foot sidewalks where practical.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville on Monday brought before the Mayor and Council a group of six proposed code amendments recommended by the planning commission for approval. Most were housekeeping measures that tightened up language in the code regarding side yard setbacks and HVAC equipment replacements, for example. However, the one proposed change with likely the biggest impact, and consequently the most debate, would require sidewalks throughout town to be widened from the standard five feet to eight feet where practical.
It has been the long-standing policy of the planning commission when reviewing site plans for new development projects to require eight-foot sidewalks where practical and many now adhere to the unwritten standard. However, the proposed code amendment forwarded to the Mayor and Council this week codifies the requirement.
As written, it does allow some flexibility with language such as “where practicable” because there will be some instances when expanding sidewalks to eight feet won’t work because of other physical constraints. However, the new eight-foot standard will be applied in most cases when properties are redeveloped. The sidewalk code amendment, along with the other five proposed code changes, was on its way to a smooth passage before Councilman Dennis Dare suggested taking a step back to consider some of the ramifications.
“I read all 92 pages and I’m a little hesitant to bring it up,” he said. “Five feet is the standard city sidewalk in the right-of-way and an expansion to eight feet could go into private property. We all know that and the planning commission knows that. Is there a section in here where that can be explained a little so people understand before they get to the plan review phase.”
Neville said the proposed code amendment was a living document of sorts and issues such as private property easement impacts would be considered going forward.
“The quick answer is the next two steps will develop a standard detail for city sidewalks,” he said. “There is probably more than one solution. The other step is working with the Bicycle Advisory Committee and work on some mapping so those things will all come together.”
Dare then brought up the issue of certain areas in town with perpendicular parking where vehicles often block the sidewalks.
“This got me thinking about what our practices are,” he said. “Most of the streets have parallel parking so its not an issue, but we have a lot of streets with perpendicular parking, especially on the ocean block.”
Dare explained how quickly an existing five-foot sidewalk can and does become even narrower when parked vehicles impede them.
“If a car parks head-in, the overhang can be one-and-a-half feet blocking the sidewalk, so you’re down to three-and-a-half feet,” he said. “Now, if one of these big trucks backs in, the overhang can be two or three feet and you’re down to a one- or two-foot sidewalk.”
As a result, many beachgoers and residents in those areas avoid the sidewalks altogether and walk in the street, creating new safety hazards, Dare asserted.
“Most people that park and go to the beach walk up the street because the sidewalks are impassible,” he said. “I think we need the city manager to work with the engineer and public works and come up with some recommendations in those cases.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with most of Dare’s issues including potential private property encroachments and perpendicular parking.
“In a lot of areas, an expansion to eight feet doesn’t always go into private property,” he said. “With some of the streets we’ve redone- 4th and 14th come to mind- they widened the sidewalks because of that and they’re much safer. It really does make a difference.”
With that said, a motion was made to have the city manager work with the city engineer to come up with some recommendations for streets with parallel parking. Meehan said he liked the concept, but wouldn’t narrow its focus so tightly.
“I would agree with that, but I wouldn’t limit it to just those streets,” he said. “I think they should review all applications and require this where practicable.”
In the end, the Mayor and Council approved the six proposed code amendments as a package. One approved change allows for flexible setbacks for replacement HVAC units, while another would allow covered landings in the side-yard setbacks. Yet another change would allow fences in the front-yard setback to be a maximum of four feet in height as long as the fence did not encroach on the clear sight triangle, or essentially the sights lines for traffic at intersections. Another approved change allows accessory buildings and other structures in the side-yard setback.