OCEAN CITY — Satisfied the concerns of the neighboring community were allayed, resort planners this week approved a conditional use request for a north-end water taxi service.
The Ocean City Planning Commission on Wednesday held a public hearing on a request for a conditional use to allow for a water taxi service based at a canal adjacent to the Food Lion shopping center near 118th Street. The owners operated the business on a temporary basis for six weeks at the height of the summer season last year with the requisite business license. However, because the owners plan to add a floating dock and a handicap-accessible ramp to the operation this year, along with utilizing an existing kiosk as an office and ticketing facility, the business must be approved as a conditional use.
It’s a rather unique case because riparian rights allow for a water taxi business on the public waterways, but because there are elements attached to the land including the kiosk and ramp, for example, it falls under the town’s zoning code. By way of background, the area proposed for the new water taxi business falls in one of the most permissive zoning designations in the town code and almost any other business including a waterfront restaurant and bar would be permissible.
The plan calls for two 27-foot Carolina skiffs outfitted for public use each capable of carrying up to 19 passengers. Called the Bay Hopper, the service would shuttle passengers along the bayside from one end of the resort to the other with guided tours of the back bays and Assateague, for example. Perhaps more importantly, the water taxi service would shuttle individuals and groups of people to and from the various restaurants, bars and other amenities on the bayside. Each of the Bay Hopper’s principle owners is a licensed captain with years of experience on the water.
Zoning Administrator Frank Hall explained the proposed water taxi service was considered a transportation use and not a recreational amenity. He said the weighty comprehensive plan was rife with references to a desired water taxi service and transportation alternatives.
“Water taxi use is emphasized in the comprehensive plan,” he said. “The comp plan encourages increasing transportation alternatives to take vehicles off Coastal Highway and exploring a bayside water taxi should be encouraged.”
One of the principal owners, Adam Douglass, laid out the business plan for the Bay Hopper operation. It will be limited to just two boats, always with a licensed captain at the helm, and would operate roughly from 8:30 a.m. to midnight each night of the summer, although the volume of business and the demand for the service would likely dictate how many trips are made daily.
“We want to establish a convenient, reliable, professional transportation system,” he said. “A year ago, we started planning for this business and became very enthusiastic about water taxi service. Currently, there is no water taxi that serves all of Ocean City. There is a need for alternative transportation and this provides that along with the beauty of traveling along the bayside.”
The water taxi service had already gained approval from the Board of Port Wardens although those hearings generated a lot of public comments raising concerns about the potential noise, the hours of operation and the number of trips in and out of the canal. Douglass assured the public the plan was to be the least intrusive as it can be on the surrounding neighborhood and there was no intention to start a water sports marina at the location.
“The boats are very quiet and we’re not out there renting boats to the public,” he said. “There will always be a Coast Guard master captain at the helm. As business owners, we are very family-oriented and we’re experienced professionals. We care about our reputation and we care about the town.”
In terms of the potential noise associated with passengers, Douglass said there were plans in place to minimize that.
“We have a very low tolerance for excessive noise,” he said. “We live along that canal too and we have a great deal of respect for the neighborhood.”
Attorney Joe Moore, who represented the applicants at the hearing, was cognizant of the two dozen or so members of the public who were in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing. While the applicants essentially only had to make their pitch to the planning commission, Moore said gaining the public’s confidence in the proposed business was important.
“Our goal is to make them just as comfortable with this plan as you are,” he said. “They are doing everything to be good neighbors and they want to be a welcome part of the community.”
The planning commission received 60 emails concerning the proposal, 50 of which were in support. However, it is not known where the majority of senders live or if they could be directly impacted by the water taxi business.
Nonetheless, the majority of those who appeared in person for the hearing were clearly opposed. It should be pointed out nearly everyone who spoke against the proposal in Wednesday said they believed the water taxi idea was a great concept, but they simply didn’t want it in their backyard.
Their comments ran the gamut from concerns about excessive noise from the vessels themselves and the passengers often coming back from a night of bar-hopping through the otherwise quiet canal-front neighborhoods to the safety along those same canals where they live. Some raised concerns about the relatively late hours of operations, while others said a single captain could not safely navigate the vessel and monitor the passengers as well.
In terms of the hours of operation, Douglass said the expectation was to have the boats back at the dock by midnight, but that he did not anticipate bringing rowdy passengers back at that hour. Instead, he said much of the business, at least at night, would involve shuttling patrons to and from bayside establishments and many of those would choose alternative modes of transportation to get home including cabs and Uber, for example.
“We don’t plan on running up and down that canal at all hours of the night,” he said. “We do expect to be taking people from one restaurant to another restaurant at night.”
In terms of appropriately staffing the vessels, Douglass said the volume and demand and the time of day would likely dictate that.
“We’ll likely have two people on board with a captain and a crewmember, but it’s not required by the Coast Guard,” he said. “The captain can concentrate on navigation and the crewmember can handle any other situation. It will be a learning process early in the season as we figure out what staffing we need for each situation.”
After the public hearing was closed, Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson said the midnight stop time was likely appropriate.
“I like the hours,” he said. “They’re not going to be out there at 2 a.m., which would bring some of the problems we heard concerns about tonight. I don’t think a lot of people are going to be coming back to the Food Lion parking lot after dinner. They’re probably going to take different transportation somewhere else. … The two main concerns I heard were the potential for noise and boat safety. They have more experience than probably 99 percent of the people out on the water in Ocean City. They are more than qualified.”
Planning Commissioner Chris Shanahan said he was satisfied the owners were sensitive to the concerns of the neighboring community.
“It seems like a very credible business,” he said. “They have been receptive to the concerns of the neighbors and I think they will continue to be that way.”
Shanahan said the comparatively small water taxi business was likely less offensive than what could be allowed in that area.
“I’m sure the Food Lion shopping center could lease some of the bulkhead frontage and you could end up with 20 boats in there,” he said. “That would really mess up the end of that canal. These guys are pros and I’m confident they will run a great business.”
Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor said there was already a high volume of boat traffic in that area in the summer.
“There are a lot of boats in that canal already that are bigger and noisier and a lot of them probably don’t follow the regulations as well as these guys will,” she said. “The water belongs to everybody. It doesn’t belong to the person that owns that condo nearby.”
Taylor pointed to the sections in the comprehensive plan that encouraged water taxis and alternative modes of transportation.
“The shared use is a transportation use the city desperately needs,” she said. “I can only hope they are successful and can carry a lot of people. This is probably the least intrusive use of that space you could have. Somebody could come in and put a waterfront café there.”
Planning Commissioner Peck Miller dismissed some of the alternative locations for the business proposed during the public comment period.
“It is an ideal location for this,” he said. “There is adequate parking and it’s well-lit and safe. This is probably the least offensive use you can have with real licensed captains running those boats.”
The planning commission debated some additional conditions other than those already imposed by the staff such as requiring two crewmembers on every trip and ending any loading and unloading of passengers by 9 p.m., but Taylor said she was satisfied with the staff conditions.
“I’d be cautious about micro-managing their business too much with a lot of conditions,” she said. “I think they’re smart enough to know what manpower they need.”
After hours of debate, the commission voted unanimously to forward a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council. The approval included the conditions spelled out by the staff including a 24-month approval, only two vessels allowed and no amplified music or announcements from the boats or the kiosks.
Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis said he was satisfied the neighbors concerns were allayed.
“We live in a resort and this is an unbelievably great amenity for the community,” he said. “I appreciate all of the comments we heard tonight and I think they’ll find over the next 24 months that there concerns are unfounded.”
Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said the proposal met the definition of the conditional use.
“As a conditional use, we have to decide if this is something greater than what is already allowed there,” she said. “I don’t think we can say that. They could put boat slips in there. There could be another restaurant in there.”