OCEAN CITY – The owners of a new water taxi service are seeking the community’s support, and the town’s approval, to continue operating their business from a north Ocean City canal.
On Feb. 20, business partners Stephen Butz, David Butz, Jeff Mason and Adam Douglass will go before the Planning and Zoning Commission to obtain a Conditional Use permit, which will allow them to continue operating a water taxi service – known as the OC Bay Hopper – from its headquarters at the end of a canal at 118th Street.
But Douglass said opposition from nearby residents, and misinformation regarding the water taxi service, could threaten their business.
“We learned that this process is not as cut and dry,” he said. “There is a great deal of risk that we may not be granted this Conditional Use permit, and we would not be able to utilize this space in the way we had intended.”
Last February, the four partners decided to combine their software skills and passion for boating and launch a water taxi business in Ocean City.
“There really wasn’t anything like that in Ocean City,” he said. “It’s really just tour boats and things like that.”
For the four partners, the idea of a water taxi service also supported their vision of connecting north Ocean City – where they rented or owned homes – to the rest of the resort.
“The whole north end of Ocean City is sort of disconnected from the rest of the excitement …,” he said. “Driving to a restaurant is stressful. Not only are you sitting in traffic, where there is nothing to see, but parking can also be really difficult.”
With a business plan fully developed, the partners soon began making the arrangements for a water taxi service, which included purchasing and outfitting a 27-foot, flat-bottomed Carolina Skiff, securing the necessary certifications and licenses, and making practice runs up and down the bay to scout out water-accessible restaurants and bars.
By late July, Douglass said OC Bay Hopper was in business, and in August, the group spotted a vacant kiosk along the canal at 118th Street. After seeking approval from Ocean City Planning and Zoning, the partners signed a three-year lease.
“We saw this as a home base where we would staff that kiosk with someone who could answer questions and where we could expand our taxi service to do a couple of family activities,” Douglass said, noting opportunities to offer sightseeing cruises and outings to view the fireworks at Northside Park.
He added the partners also developed a phone app to locate and book an OC Bay Hopper for transportation to and from bayside restaurants and bars.
“In the afternoons and evenings, we sort of operated like an Uber,” he said.
After a successful pilot season, Douglass said he and his partners began to regroup and focus on needed improvements at the kiosk, which included a ramp and floating dock that would make the taxi service more accessible to families and older clients.
But during the permitting process, the business partners learned several neighbors were opposed to their plans.
“We were surprised,” he said. “The entire six weeks we operated, we heard nothing but positive feedback from people.”
For many residents, however, the business came with several concerns. Some were concerned OC Bay Hopper operated illegally during the summer season, while others thought the business would grow to include other unwanted activities, such as boat and Jet Ski rentals.
It was also during this time that the business partners were told they would need a Conditional Use permit to continue operating at the 118th Street location.
“They basically said that because a water taxi is not a specifically allowed use at that location, we now needed to apply for a Conditional Use permit,” Douglass said. “It was a surprise for us, mostly because we had reached out to the city before we signed our lease to make sure we could use that location.”
Because a public hearing was already scheduled, the business partners came before the Board of Port Wardens in January to obtain a Marine Construction permit, a request that was met with opposition from several nearby residents.
“Some of them thought we were going to be renting boats out or that we were going to have Jet Skis and parasails,” he said. “Some of them thought we were going to bring a 50-foot boat into the canal, which was never our plan.”
He added the group did have plans to operate a sightseeing sailboat, but had no intention to dock it in the canal.
“We want to address all the neighbors’ concerns,” he said. “I really hope they were all angry because they misunderstood or were misinformed.”
Despite opposition, the business partners were granted a Marine Construction permit with the condition that they obtain a Conditional Use permit from the Planning and Zoning Commission, which will hear their case on Feb. 20. The commission is then expected to forward its decision, and the results of the public hearing, to the Mayor and Council.
“The scariest part is we learned a previous business that tried to operate out of our location years ago did not fare well in this process,” Douglass said. “A number of years ago, a gentleman wanted to open a parasail business at that location. Planning and Zoning approved his conditional use permit, but then the Mayor and Council denied it and he did not get to open his business.”
Douglass said the process is concerning to him and his partners, who recently invested additional funds to purchase a second water taxi. He added any restrictions included in a Conditional Use permit could also threaten their business.
“They can also restrict certain behaviors about our business …,” he said. “Depending on the types of restrictions they give us, it could make our business a nonstarter.”
While the process is likely to play out over the coming weeks, Douglass said he and his business partners wanted to address any misunderstandings.
“We want to tell the people what we are planning to do,” he said, “and hopefully they can support that idea.”
Those seeking more information are asked to visit www.ocbayhopper.com or the “OC Bay Hopper” Facebook page.