OCEAN CITY — The resort’s parking task force met for the first time this week to take a comprehensive look at all issues with assurances from officials there is no predisposed intent to explore an expansion of paid parking in Ocean City.
Along with noted consultant Dan Kupferman of Walker Consultants to lead the exercise, the task force includes Mayor Rick Meehan, a handful of councilmembers and department heads and a cross-section of business owners, property owners, community representatives and members of various other boards and commissions.
From the outset on Wednesday, Meehan reiterated the goal was not to make the jump to an expansion of paid parking in certain ocean-block areas, but rather to take a comprehensive look at all parking issues in the resort from one end of town to the other. The concept of forming the task force was borne out of strategic planning sessions last year.
“When we discussed the strategic plan months ago, the issue of parking came up and it’s been an issue for many years,” he said. “This task force is meeting to take a broad look at parking in general. There is no pre-set agenda and until we have a recommendation from this committee, there will be no action taken.”
For his part, Kupferman, who has 20-plus years of experience in municipal parking solutions, was brought in to guide the task force discussions and essentially provide an extra set of eyes from the outside looking in on some of the issues facing Ocean City. He was hand-picked by City Engineer Terry McGean to guide the task force through some of the parking issues because of his vast experience.
“Why am I here?” he said. “Usually when I’m called in, people aren’t happy about the parking for one reason or another.”
In the same breath, Kupferman said any town he has consulted with on parking solutions was doing so because they had supply and demand issues, which in some cases is a good problem to have.
“If you have a parking problem, that’s usually a good thing,” he said. “It means you have a vibrant community. It means people want to come here.”
McGean presented an overview of the town’s current parking situation as a jumping-off point of sorts for the task force and the initial meeting. For example, McGean explained there were currently around 2,600 paid parking spaces in the resort including 1,270 at the Inlet lot, 727 more on the various municipal lots and about 569 paid on-street parking spaces, mostly clustered in the downtown area.
Those paid parking spaces combined produced about $4.2 million in parking revenue in 2018. In addition, there are roughly 3,975 free on-street parking spaces in the ocean-block in Ocean City from one end of the town to the other. Again, while the intent of the task force is not to solely focus on expanding paid on-street parking, a point Meehan reiterated often during Wednesday’s meeting, it was certainly the 800-pound elephant in the room for some on the task force.
For the record, Meehan has said he does not support and will not support an expansion of paid on-street parking in the resort. He reiterated that statement when he named the task force members in February.
However, with the mayor not having a council vote and only holding veto power in certain circumstances, expanding paid on-street parking remains a possibility as the task force moves forward. It’s no secret adding paid parking meters in certain areas of the city has been debated in the recent past as a means to generate new revenue. Six years ago, the city explored adding paid parking meters in the ocean block at the north end of town near the Delaware line, much to chagrin of residents in those areas. City officials backed down from that proposal amid backlash from some of the residents in the area.
Just last year during budget deliberations, the council directed staff to begin exploring metered parking on public streets in the ocean block from 11th Street to 33rd Street, a proposal which came with an expected annual revenue of around $600,000. In fact, a motion was made and ultimately passed to explore that option, with an amendment attached to form a parking task force, the make-up of which was announced last month.
While stopping short of coming out and saying they supported expanded paid on-street parking, some on the task force said they at least supported exploring the concept. For example, Council Secretary and task force member Mary Knight said expanded paid parking could shift some of the taxpayer burden to the visitors who use it.
“You look at this and see there are 4,000 free parking spaces,” she said. “It takes around $659,000 a year to maintain those free spaces and the taxpayers are paying for that. We just need to see if there is another revenue source. The tourists should help pay for that and not just the taxpayer.”
Knight said revenue generated from expanded paid parking could help offset the costs of providing services and amenities for visitors and possibly ease the burden on the resident and non-resident taxpayers.
“Look at everything we provide from clean, pristine beaches to free events to free fireworks,” she said. “All of that comes with a cost. Sooner or later, they have to share some of that burden.”
However, not all on the task force were keen on expanding paid on-street parking in certain areas.
“If the purpose of this is to identify areas for more paid parking, I’m not for that,” said task force member Chris Mitchell. “We’re already getting negative publicity just for forming this task forces and having this meeting.”
Delmarva Condominium Managers Association President Joe Groves, a task force member, also disagreed with jumping to the paid parking expansion issue at the outset of the task force’s efforts.
“I hope the objective of this isn’t where to put more meters,” he said. “I know that’s not the case and we’re taking a broad look at everything.”
While any cursory discussion of expanding paid on-street parking thus far has focused on largely on the ocean-block area from 11th to 33rd streets, Groves said the parking issues are equally acute in the uptown areas including high-rise row.
“Our biggest concern up north is most of the buildings have just one spot for each unit,” he said. “Years and years ago, probably before any of us were here, people let somebody put up a building with one parking spot for a three- or four-bedroom condo. There was no real pre-planning 35 years ago.”
Identified as part of the problem with the often lack of parking, especially during the height of the season, is an increase in the number of day-trippers. Of course, almost as long as there has been an Ocean City, day-trippers have been coming to the resort for the beach, Boardwalk and special events, but the volume has increased in recent years from a variety of different sources.
For example, a hotel building boom just across the bridge in West Ocean City has increased the number of visitors staying off the island, but driving into the resort to enjoy the beach and Boardwalk. Similarly, a building boom along the Route 54 corridor in neighboring Delaware has contributed to the volume of daily visitors seeking to park close to the beach.
“We used to consider the day-tripper as the guy from Baltimore or the guy from Annapolis,” said McGean. “That has changed. Now we have to consider the day-trippers from West Ocean City and from Delaware. The people from the Bayside community in Delaware are coming down Route 54 and they’re turning right, not left because there is no beach parking in Delaware.”
Paid on-street parking has existed in the downtown area for years. Downtown business owner Bill Gibbs said business owners can live with the paid parking during the height of the summer, but the parking requirements should be eased a little in the shoulder seasons. Gibbs, a task force member, also pointed out some of the apparent inequities with businesses in other areas of the resort.
“With the information we’ve collected downtown, it really isn’t fair that we’re stuck with a lot of paid street parking,” he said. “We had to go out and spend millions of dollars for parking lots just to keep our businesses going.”
Task force member hotelier and planning commissioner Joel Brous said if he had his druthers, he would eliminate paid on-street parking altogether.
“I’m against parking meters everywhere,” he said. “Keep paid parking at the Inlet lot and the municipal lots. I’d like to see them all go away to be honest because it’s become a tourism nightmare.”
For sake of argument, if a recommendation came out of the task force to expand paid on-street parking north to 33rd Street as has been mentioned before, Mitchell said that only moves the problem further out.
“Wherever you draw the line, it’s always going to be one block further,” he said. “It you make it 33rd Street, then 34th Street becomes the new line. There is always going to be a new line.”
McGean said whatever recommendations come out of the task force deliberations, there will be impacts on the other segments of how people get around and park and utilize different areas of the city. For every action, there is an equal reaction, he essentially said.
“We always look at parking, traffic and mass transit as the holy trinity,” he said. “What you do with one effects the other. Coastal Highway is what it is. We’re never adding more lanes. We have three- to five-minute headway with the buses and you can’t do much better than that. That leaves parking. We just have to remember when we change one area, it affects the other two.”
Councilman and task force member John Gehrig said equity was the key in whatever recommendation comes out of the task force.
“One of my concerns is fairness for the taxpayers,” he said. “They contribute a half-a-million-dollars a year to beach replenishment, another $2.5 million for the beach patrol and another million on beach cleaning. We spend $5 million a year on the beach and the Boardwalk. The people living in town are paying for that, the people paying to stay in Ocean City are contributing to that. We need to look at the day-trippers coming in and filling up the parking. They aren’t contributing to all of that.”
Councilman Dennis Dare recalled a similar task force created decades ago when there was discussion about expanding the convention center. Dare said he was confident the current task force could come up with an amenable solution for all involved, but cautioned the revenue side had be part of the discussion.
“Where can you go to the beach for free and have your trash picked up and have a lifeguard watching over you every block?” he said. “There are very few places like that anymore, but there is a cost associated with that.”
Mitchell said Ocean City has always been a destination for millions of people living within a half-day’s drive of the resort and that should be considered in whatever comes out of the task force.
“We are a drive-to destination,” he said. “The reason for the success of Ocean City is we’re a few hours from major cities and millions can drive here and have their cars. We need to make sure the decisions we make don’t negatively impact that. We need to continue to make it easy and affordable to come here. That’s what Ocean City has always been about.”
For his part, Kupferman said he would direct the task force through all of the issues to come up with an equitable solution for all.
“Whatever happens here, whether we do something or do nothing, not everybody will be happy,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t some issues.”