OCEAN CITY — After yet another troublesome unsanctioned motor vehicle special event last weekend, Ocean City officials on Monday heard an impassioned plea to affect concrete change from an unlikely source.
For the record, the official H2O International (H2Oi) car show was held in Atlantic City last weekend, but as expected, a huge contingent of car enthusiasts hell-bent of wreaking havoc in Ocean City arrived anyway. Throughout the weekend, Ocean City witnessed the same lawlessness and blatant disrespect from the unregistered, unsanctioned participants as in years past.
As expected, there were thousands of tricked-out vehicles cruising up and down Coastal Highway and other roadways throughout town and thousands more along the sidewalks and in business parking lots egging them on. Throughout the weekend, at least one vehicle flipped on its roof in Coastal Highway trying to do a trick, knocking out a median tree; at least a few others stuck axle-deep in the sand on the beach; several high-profile fights posted on social media; and countless other examples of wanton disrespect, including trash and debris strewn about commercial properties.
When the dust settled and most of the car enthusiasts cleared out by Sunday evening, left in their wake were trashed parking lots, paint splashed on some roadways and a community still trying to find answers for the challenging problems. During the public comment period of Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, the town’s elected officials and others in attendance heard an impassioned plea for change from the wife of man struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a Maryland State Police trooper during last year’s fall Endless Summer Cruisin event.
“I have a personal reason to be here,” said Ocean City resident Renae Lawlor on Monday. “My husband was killed during a car show event last year. I really didn’t want to be here, but I thought it was my civic duty to come before you and tell my story. I’m not going to get personal, but my situation is ongoing.”
Around 11:30 p.m. last Oct. 6, the victim, identified as Thomas Lawlor, 57, of Ocean City, was struck and killed by a State Police vehicle assisting the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) with road patrol. A short time later, another pedestrian was struck by a vehicle while crossing Coastal Highway in an area outside the crosswalk and against the traffic signal, but survived injuries sustained in the collision.
On Monday, Renae Lawlor acknowledged the town’s efforts to address some of the problems associated with the motorized special events, particularly the task force created last year that ultimately led to the implementation of the special event zone. The special event zone, with its reduced speed limits and higher fines, for example, was in place throughout the unsanctioned H2Oi event last weekend and is back in place this week for the Endless Summer Cruisin event.
“My concern is with pedestrian safety and motor vehicle events,” she said. “Looking at the report, there were 22 pedestrian collisions last year including two fatalities and both of them occurred during car show events.”
Lawlor said her major concern is with the sheer volume of vehicles in town during the motorized special events, but that issue is long on problems and short on solutions. The special event zone equips the OCPD and its allied partners with the tools they need to increase enforcement, but there is no clear answer on how to limit the number of participants and hangers-on during the events, if that is even the town’s desire. Nonetheless, Lawlor said it’s an issue that must be explored further.
“What I want to talk about is the amount of traffic,” she said. “If you really want to get real about solving these problems, you have to look at the amount of cars you let in town. How to do that I don’t know. Is it going to cost people money because you are not going to allow these cars here? Probably. No amount of constraint, policies or eight-foot sidewalks are going to change the amount of cars you have on a 10-mile island.”
In terms of the incident that claimed her husband’s life, Lawlor asked that the scope of the task force’s efforts be broadened to examine the impact of the special events on the police and first responders.
“Secondly, I want to find out what policies you’ve looked at in terms of fatigue and distracted driving on the part of the police and EMS in town,” she said. “Has the committee looked at those items, especially fatigue and distracted driving?”
Lawlor referred back to an earlier discussion during Monday’s meeting about the paint scheme for the 64th Street water tower.
“Lastly, you just spent a lot of time looking at painting water towers,” she said. “Maybe you ought to put a sign on them about safety in this town.”
When it was their time to comment, the Mayor and Council expressed condolences to Lawlor and thanked her from shedding new light on some of the issues.
“Your comments were compelling and what we sometimes need to hear to move forward in the right direction,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Sometimes, comments like that help guide us as we look for solutions. We’ll be vigilant in our pursuit to find answers for this community.”
Councilman John Gehrig also thanked Lawlor for her comments and the strength she showed in bringing them forward in the public meeting.
“I’m sorry for your loss and we take those suggestions very seriously,” he said. “We know there are challenges and none of us want those challenges. There is positive momentum with the committee and if we’re given the latitude for further enforcement, I think we can really solve some of these problems, but it is moving in the right direction. None of us want these problems and you have our commitment, and I think I speak for all of us, that we’re going to work our tails off to make this right for all of us because we live here too.”
Delmarva Condominium Managers Association President Joe Groves, a member of the special event task force, also thanked Lawlor for her impassioned plea and urged others in the community to come forward with their concerns.
“It’s important that we hear from people in this town,” he said. “I want to address an editorial that I read that basically blames you all for not wanting H2Oi here because they are young. Nothing could be further from the truth for this council, the mayor and the business community. We want young and old to be here. We want people to come here and have fun, but we want them to obey our laws, plain and simple.”
Groves praised the special event zone and said it was a starting point for what could signal more changes during the motorized special events. He also praised the OCPD and the allied agencies for their efforts over the weekend.
“I think it was a great idea,” he said. “I think it’s important what we did. I think it worked. Is it all we need? No. Did our police do a wonderful job this weekend? You couldn’t have asked for more. They did a super job from the chief all the way down to the first-year officer.”
Groves said the task force had to be steadfast in their approach to addressing the problems associated with some of the motorized special events.
“I respectfully request, and I know we are, that we continue this task force,” he said. “I think we need to widen the task force to include focus groups from this town.”
Groves also delivered a grim warning if more changes are not affected.
“I’m surprised no one was killed this year,” he said. “I really am. I wasn’t going to say that tonight, but with some of the actions we had in town, it needs to be said. Some of the people we don’t want in town, but I don’t know how we handle that. I do know that I want this task force to continue and I want it to be bigger and I have a ton of ideas for that. We need to address this and we need to find a solution fast or we’re going to be looking at something we can’t fix.”
Another local resident, Larry Yates, addressed the issues during the public comment period and quickly found himself on the task force going forward. Yates has decades of experience in law enforcement and offered to serve on the task force. Meehan quickly added him to the growing committee.
“I encourage you to think outside the box,” said Yates. “We need to look at everything.”
Councilman Matt James also praised the efforts of the town’s law enforcement and first responders during the troublesome weekend.
“I want to thank all of the police, the first responders and the allied agencies for what they did this weekend,” he said. “I think the great weather got a lot of people out we didn’t expect. I think they did a great job in helping to control what was going on in town.”
For his part, Meehan said the town in general, and the task force specifically, would leave no stone unturned as they continue to seek solutions to the problems.
“We are committed to making sure we do everything we can to keep our residents and visitors safe,” he said. “We will continue that effort. New ideas will be welcome and we have to vet everything to see what works. I think we learn a lot each year.”
Meehan said the task force will convene again following the rest of the fall motorized special events and begin forming new strategies going forward.
“I know we will be back in Annapolis again during the next legislative session,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll bring forward some new requests for the General Assembly. One is to include aggravated assault by vehicle, which we didn’t get passed last year. We’re going to go back up there and I think we now have even more evidence to present our case.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman, who all but sewed up the election to the House of Delegates District 38-C seat during the June primary, said he was prepared to help with whatever the task force needs and requests from the General Assembly.
“If things go as planned in November during the election and there is something I can do to help tweak the special event zone from the General Assembly standpoint, I stand ready to do that,” he said. “I want to hear what the task force comes up with. Hopefully, I’ll be there to help change whatever the task force and the town needs to make this better.”
On Tuesday, OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro reiterated some of the same sentiments heard during Monday’s meeting in terms of revisiting the special event zone and other efforts to curtail some of the disruptive behavior.
“Despite the event moving to another location, we continued to see disorderly and disruptive behavior similar to previous years,” he said. “Moving forward, we will take a close look at the weekend and evaluate what changes need to be made to help us in the future, including future attempts to bolster the special event zone legislation even more.”
Statistically speaking, the numbers in many key indicators were down slightly from this past weekend to prior years during the unsanctioned event. For example, the total number of calls for service during the event went from 2,527 in 2016 to 2,735 in 2017 to 2,140 this year. The total number of traffic stops also declined from 1,263 in 2017 to 836 this year. However, the total number of traffic citations issued last weekend compared to the same weekend in 2017 went up from 858 in 2017 to 1,280 this year.
Buzzuro acknowledged the unsanctioned event over the weekend created more than its share of problems, but pointed out there were no serious incidents.
“While the behavior was disruptive to citizens, there were no serious criminal incidents and no one was seriously injured,” he said. “The Ocean City Police Department was out in full force with additional assistance from our allied agencies and I’m grateful for their tireless work over the weekend.”