OCEAN CITY — Improving the streetscape on an important section of Baltimore Avenue in the downtown area could start with undergrounding the unsightly utility poles and wires, resort officials decided this week.
For the last several years, resort officials have been working on a plan to renovate the streetscape along a section of Baltimore Avenue from North Division to 15th streets. The potential project is fraught with complications, however. For example, the actual roadbed is owned and maintained by the state, while the city owns and maintains the sidewalks and the rest of the right-of-way.
Complicating the issue further is the fact about 30 feet of the town-owned right-of-way, platted over a century ago, has been absorbed by private property over the years. Making the situation even more complex is the State Highway Administration’s mandate to make the sidewalks in that section of Baltimore Avenue ADA-compliant.
The long-term plan is to improve the streetscape in that section of Baltimore Avenue including wider sidewalks, improved lighting, landscaping and even undergrounding utilities. Before that can happen, however, a plan needs to be developed to meet the goals of the project while resolving the private property right-of-way issues including reverting ownership back to the landowners in that corridor after the town’s streetscape needs are met. City Engineer Terry McGean on Tuesday outlined some of the options and recommendations for the council.
“From 1st Street to 4th Street, we’re recommending putting in utility stripes in both directions, which would get the utility poles out of the center of the sidewalk,” he said. “That would allow us to do a lot of the other things we want to do with this corridor including widening the sidewalks.”
Whatever final design for the corridor improvements emerges, the likely first step with be undergrounding the utilities in that section of the corridor, a project that would likely come with a stiff price tag, according to McGean.
“The elephant in the room is do you want to underground the utilities,” he said. “Of course, cost is an issue. We’re probably talking about millions of dollars to do it. The utility companies are reluctant to give an estimate until we commit to paying for a study to do it.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins provided a brief history of how the town got to the current situation with Baltimore Avenue. Adkins said the types of streetscape improvements discussed could be accomplished without too much impact on the property owners along the corridor.
“About 10 years ago, we started on the ocean block in that area and went searching for property lines,” he said. “What we found is most of those property lines have been in place since the 1890s. It appears to be in the front yard of private property along Baltimore Avenue. Some of it is hedges and landscaping, dumpster pads, signs and even parking in some cases. There are not a lot of hard impediments in terms of structures in the right-of-way.”
McGean pointed out areas of Baltimore Avenue north of 15th Street where the town-owned right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue absorbed over the years by private property had landscaping and other features that created a nice buffer from the roadway.
“Drive down there and see how nice it looks,” he said. “There are some advantages to having the buffer remaining. I’ve heard it’s the council’s desire to revert some of that property back to the landowners and there are some advantages to that.”
Dare pointed to the section of Baltimore Avenue south of North Division Street where the utilities were undergrounded as an example of what the future of the rest of the corridor could look like.
“The answer is undergrounding and we only get one chance to get it right,” he said. “It will be expensive. If you look south on Baltimore Avenue and see the trees and the decorative lighting, that’s what you want. When you look at this section, all you see is poles and wires.”
Dare said in that section of Baltimore Avenue where the utilities have been undergrounded, the cost of that project was offset by the increase in property values, and thus property taxes.
“When you look at some of those sections, the improvements allowed and the subsequent increase in property values more than paid for the cost of undergrounding the utilities,” he said. “We have the same opportunity here. It’s going to be costly, but it’s going to greatly improve the first impression of Ocean City. … You come into Ocean City and see that nice entry park with the marlin, then you see the Boardwalk arch. Then, you turn left and see a sea of utility poles and wires.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed undergrounding the utilities along the entry section of Baltimore Avenue into Ocean City was paramount to the overall streetscape plan.
“The most important thing we can do in the future is undergrounding the utilities,” he said. “You talk about aesthetics. If you take the utility poles down, it does that automatically before you make any other changes to the right-of-way. That in itself would create the ambience we’re looking for and it would improve safety along that corridor.”
Meehan advocated for pursuing the undergrounding of the utilities in that section of Baltimore Avenue.
“Anything short of that, I think you could create other problems,” he said. “Taking down the utility poles would make all the difference in the world on Baltimore Avenue.”
Councilman John Gehrig did not disagree, but said there had to be an in-kind increase in revenue to offset the potential cost of undergrounding the utilities.
“If we’re talking about spending a lot of money, we need to have a plan to make money, too,” he said.
Council Secretary Mary Knight made a motion to grant staff the authority to begin working with utility companies on cost estimates for undergrounding the utilities in that section of Baltimore Avenue. The motion passed by a unanimous 7-0 vote. Adkins said he and McGean would begin working with the utility companies.
“This allows Terry and I to speak with Delmarva Power and Verizon and Comcast to at least figure out the cost,” he said. “They won’t do an estimate on their own, so we’ll probably have to fund a study but we’ll come back to you with that.”