Ocean City Council Debates Wider Sidewalk Initiative

Ocean City Council Debates Wider Sidewalk Initiative
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — A mandate for wider sidewalks where practical in Ocean City was taken out of larger ordinance affecting code changes this week, but could return soon as its own stand-alone ordinance.

Wider sidewalks throughout town where practical has been a long-standing goal for resort officials and has often become a standard condition for approval for new development projects in the resort. Mandating sidewalks be widened from the current five-foot standard to eight feet where practical was originally part of other code amendments carefully vetted by the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission over the last few months and forwarded to the Mayor and Council with a positive recommendation.

The other proposed code amendments include flexible setbacks for replacement HVAC units, allowing covered landings in the side-yard setbacks and allowing four-foot fences in front yard setbacks, for example. Earlier this month, the mayor and council approved the collection of ordinance changes on first reading, but concerns were raised about the eight-foot sidewalk issue.

As a result, when the ordinance came back for approval on second reading on Monday, the section about sidewalks was deleted. City Solicitor Guy Ayres explained the sidewalk issue was sent back to staff for further review and could come back to the council as a stand-alone ordinance.

“This has deleted the section about eight-foot sidewalks,” he said. “The staff is reviewing that and will come back with recommendations. If you want to pursue that, it would be in a separate ordinance.”

From the beginning, Councilman Wayne Hartman has been opposed to codifying the eight-foot sidewalk requirement for a variety of reasons including potential liability issues, property rights issues and logistic issues, such as the width of the town’s right-of-way on certain streets and the potential impact on traffic safety if the sidewalks were required to be widened.

On Monday, Hartman renewed the debate and voiced his pleasure the eight-foot sidewalk requirement had been removed, at least temporarily, from the ordinance the council had before them for second reading.

“I’m glad to see the section on sidewalks removed,” he said. “My big concern was liability. If somebody gets hurt on an eight-foot sidewalk and it’s on private property, there could be liability issues for the property owner.”

Hartman said he personally discussed the sidewalk issue with staff and found it was not as easy as just adding three more feet of sidewalk to the existing five-foot sidewalks in many areas.

“What I’ve learned is the eight-foot sidewalk requirement is actually blowing up the budget,” he said. “You just can’t attach a three-foot section of sidewalk to the existing five-foot sidewalk. They actually have to tear them out and rebuild them.”

Hartman then launched into a long dissertation on the elements of the ordinance up for second reading on Monday including the setback requirements and the fence heights, for example. He complained the council in general was getting ordinances for approval without all of the information provided by the staff.

“We’ve spent so much time discussing water tower colors and we never seem to get this important information,” he said. “We were ready to pass this before we put the brakes on it. We do we have staff not giving us all of the information before we bring things to a vote. I just want to voice my displeasure on that happening.”

However, Mayor Rick Meehan defended the process, pointing out before an ordinance is brought to the mayor and council, it is carefully vetted by the planning commission with all of the requisite public hearings and opportunities for the public to weigh in.

“I just want to thank the planning and zoning commission for holding the public hearings, holding all of those meetings, taking public comments and carefully reviewing all of these items before sending them to the mayor and council,” he said. “The mayor and council have reviewed these code amendments and the community has had an opportunity to raise their concerns. That’s the process. The process has been followed here.”

Meehan continues to be a strong advocate for widening sidewalks where practical.

“I am a big supporter of widening sidewalks in Ocean City where practical and I think it’s extremely important,” he said. “Our comprehensive plan speaks of making Ocean City more pedestrian friendly and our strategic plan expresses that as well.”

Meehan said “where practical” is the important language in the proposed ordinance.

“To take a look back and take a closer look to see if there are areas where it isn’t practical, I certainly don’t have a problem with that, but I like to look at ways to make it happen rather than find ways to not make it happen,” he said. “As written, it said ‘where practical’ and I think that’s important. We would never implement this in areas where it isn’t practical.”

The mayor also painted a picture of the need for wider sidewalks around the resort.

“When I look at our community and as I watch people walk our sidewalks with their kids and their families, the more they’re able to walk side by side, the more they’re able to hold hands with their little ones and the more we make Ocean City a better walkable community, the better we are as a community,” he said.

The council voted 6-1 with Hartman opposed to approve the ordinance before them without the section on sidewalks included. The sidewalk issue will be revisited and brought back to the council as a separate ordinance if that is the direction chosen and recommended by staff.

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.