New Hotel Approved For Planet Maze Site In Ocean City

New Hotel Approved For Planet Maze Site In Ocean City
The proposed Hilton Tru on 34th Street and Coastal Highway would replace the existing Planet Maze business. Rendering of east facing elevation by Atlantic Planning Development & Design Inc.

OCEAN CITY — Resort planners this week approved the site plan for a new five-story, 105-room brand hotel, but not before concerns from the neighbors about potential drainage issues were allayed.

The Ocean City Planning Commission had before them on Tuesday a site plan review for a new Hilton Tru hotel along Coastal Highway between 33rd Street and Hitchens Avenue. The site currently hosts the Planet Maze laser tag facility along with a mini-golf course that will eventually be torn down to make way for the new hotel project. Hilton Tru is a relatively new concept from the lodging giant that appeals to a younger demographic.

Local attorney Hugh Cropper IV, who was representing the project developer Deep Blue Hospitality, explained the concept includes well-appointed but smaller hotel rooms with a greater emphasis on common areas. For example, the plans for the new Hilton Tru at 33rd Street includes indoor and outdoor common areas with gaming areas, work stations and other amenities.

“It’s a new concept,” he said. “It’s kind of a step in another direction. The trend has been bigger rooms and suites, but this is smaller and more contemporary. There is a lot of community area. The concept is to encourage people to use the community areas and not spend so much time in their rooms.”

Zoning Administrator Frank Hall systematically addressed the staff’s concerns and conditions after a careful review of the plans, including traffic impacts, lighting and landscaping and ingress and egress points. The plan calls for a five-story hotel with a contemporary design that includes 105 rooms and vast common areas. Hall explained the project as planned met all the town’s code requirements.

“There are no special exceptions and no variances,” he said. “The project is code compliant in every way.”

Jeff Thaler, one of the principals on the development team, agreed a stringent staff review revealed no need for any special exceptions or variances. The project includes just 104 parking spaces for 105 rooms, but one space is dedicated to a municipal bus shelter, so it does not count against the parking requirements.

“We feel like we have met and done everything asked of us,” he said. “This project respects the character of the neighborhood and it will be a great asset.”

Some on the planning commission voiced concern about the impact on traffic in an area that is frequently congested already at peak times. Traffic engineer Betty Tustin from the Traffic Group explained there was a one-way service road at the rear of the property that would funnel hotel traffic to the signalized intersection at 33rd Street. In addition, the site plan includes ample signage on the property to direct guests to signalized intersections and the crosswalks.

“We got a handle on the amount of traffic generated by Planet Maze and the mini-golf and it was around 300 on some days and 800 on big days with an average of around 400,” she said. “A hotel with 105 rooms will generate much less traffic. Guests will use public transportation or walk where they want to go when they’re here.”

Perhaps the biggest issue, and an issue that threatened to derail the site plan approval process, involved stormwater drainage from the property. The developer’s engineer explained the project as designed reduced the amount of pervious surface that drains from the property compared to what is existing on the site.

There is an existing 10-foot stormwater management easement along the north side of the property that ultimately discharges into the bay through a draining system including pipes leading to the outfall. That 10-foot easement became a point of contention for neighboring property owners in the Jamaica Bay condominiums and the Sandpiper on the Bay condominiums.

Those property owners did not object to the new hotel in general, but raised concerns about the project’s contribution to what is already a challenging drainage problem at times. City Engineer Terry McGean provided a brief history on the drainage and flooding problems in the area that included a lawsuit decades ago. Essentially, there was a drainage pipe that led to the outfall on the bay in the 10-foot stormwater easement that became blocked or clogged from time to time. In addition, the outfall itself often becomes blocked by sand and other debris, limiting the flow of stormwater from the properties.

As a result of the lawsuit, a new drain pipe was installed in the easement that handled the runoff from the adjacent Jamaica Bay and Sandpiper properties, but that pipe ended at the property line for the parcel that will host the new hotel. The existing pipe in the easement along the hotel property has since been abandoned and does not connect to the pipe leading to the outfall.

“That easement has been the subject of controversy over the years,” said McGean. “We have worked with the property owners on that issue. That outfall pipe only serves those properties. There will not be any additional runoff from this site. We believe those conditions have been met and we are comfortable that this project has sufficient design controls.”

McGean said while he was comfortable with the stormwater design for the project, he was willing to continue to work with the hotel developers and the neighboring property owners to make sure the potential flooding problems aren’t exacerbated.

“We recognize the concerns of the community,” he said. “We worked to address those concerns and will continue to address them as the project goes forward.”

Project developer Mike Meoli of Deep Blue Hospitality said his company would agree to clean out the drainage pipe and outfall as needed if it helped ease the neighbors’ concerns, even though his project is not expected to contribute to any flooding issues.

“It’s just as important to us that the pipe doesn’t back up,” he said. “If the costs aren’t outrageous and it needs to be done once a year, we’d be glad to do it.”

Attorney John Seipp, who was representing the adjacent property owners in Jamaica Bay and Sandpiper, reiterated some of the history of the drainage issues for the combined property. While he said the adjacent property owners were not against the hotel in general, they had reservations about the proposed drainage plan.

“The question is, are they going to put water in our pipe?” he said. “If so, how much? If they are going to use our pipe, we want them to do a study to determine if all of that drainage from that land going into that pipe is not going to overwhelm it.”

Seipp called on engineer and architect Keith Iott for some technical expertise on the drainage issue. Iott, who examined the existing conditions prior to Tuesday’s meeting, said he believed the existing pipe in the easement along the proposed hotel property was no longer functioning.

“I would be surprised if there is any water going into the section of pipe,” he said. “The entire Planet Maze property drains to that northwest corner. I think there should be a complete hydrographic analysis. I think it could be done as an ongoing review before the issuance of a building permit. The intent here is not to stall this process and they aren’t against the hotel, but this needs further study.”

After considerable debate, the planning commission voted 5-0 with two members absent to approve the site plan for the new Hilton Tru with an added condition of the developer sharing the drainage engineering reports with the adjacent property owners Jamaica Bay and Sandpiper.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.