OCEAN CITY — The bill seeking to add more teeth to the current special event zone law, passed by state lawmakers last year, had a committee hearing this week with a strong local presence testifying.
After several disturbing special event weekends in 2017, resort officials began exploring ways to combat some of the illicit and reckless activity. Out of those early discussions was born a desire to create a special event zone during specified sanctioned and unsanctioned motorized events, which required the approval of the General Assembly.
Last year, then-Senator Jim Mathias and then-Delegate Mary Beth Carozza cross-filed a pair of bills aimed at creating a special event zone on roadways throughout Ocean City during the spring and fall motorized events. The bills breezed through their respective chambers and were ultimately signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan.
As a result, special event zones were implemented during some of the sanctioned motorized special events last year and even the unsanctioned and unofficial H2O International (H2Oi) event with considerable success in the first year. Among other things, speed limits were reduced on most roadways in Ocean City, resulting in significantly higher fines for offenders.
However, the legislation approved last year excluded some of the more onerous violations often associated with the motorized special events in the resort. Satisfied with just getting something through Annapolis in the first year, resort officials vowed to return this year with a request for new legislation with enhanced penalties for some of the other more egregious violations.
To that end, Carozza, now a senator, during the current session introduced Senate Bill 682, which would increase the types of violations often associated with the motorized special events that weren’t included in the bill passed by state lawmakers last year. Senate Bill 682 had its first hearing this week in front of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Delegate and former Ocean City Councilman Wayne Hartman cross-filed similar legislation in the House, which was scheduled for a committee hearing on Friday. Carozza explained the intent of the legislation to the Judicial Proceedings Committee at the outset of the hearing on Tuesday.
“This is a priority local public safety bill,” she said. “Last year’s bill established a special event zone during motor vehicle events in Ocean City and allowed for increased fines for speeding to begin to increase public safety. However, last year’s bill did not include increased penalties for other violations like reckless and negligent driving in a special event zone. This bill expands the violations covered under the current law and will increase public safety in our local community.”
Ocean City sent a strong delegation to Annapolis to testify on behalf of the bill including Mayor Rick Meehan and Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro and Lieutenant Scott Harner. The Ocean City delegation pointed out a total of 2,222 citations were issued for violations in special event zones in the resort in the first year alone last year, although about one-third of those weren’t covered under the current special event zone law. Meehan said the proposed Senate Bill 682 legislation would tighten the bill passed last year.
“Expanding the violations covered under the special event zone legislation will give our police officers additional tools needed to enforce and discourage the reckless and unsafe conditions we experience during these three event weekends,” he said. “Our goal is not to arrest or cite individuals, but to discourage and deter behavior that threatens the safety of our residents and visitors.”
Perhaps the most compelling testimony during Tuesday’s hearing came from a representative of one of Ocean City’s largest residential neighborhood. Through a letter entered into the record, Caine Woods Community Association President Joe Kostelac said the residents of the community supported the enhanced legislation as a means to improve safety in the residential neighborhoods during certain motorized special events.
“We have heard from numerous neighbors about their concern for their own safety as well as their children and grandchildren crossing the street and playing in our neighborhoods,” he wrote. “Many of these participants are a serious threat to our neighborhoods, our personal property and our safety. While increased fines and arrests will not eliminate these unsafe acts, they may cause them to pause before opening their wallets.”
The proposed legislation in front of the committee on Tuesday would increase penalties for certain traffic violations not included in last year’s approved bill. For example, a violator could be fined up to $1,000 if convicted of negligent driving, participating in a speed contest, skidding, spinning wheels or causing excessive noise. The bill was introduced as emergency legislation, meaning it would go into effect upon passage in advance of the spring Cruisin’ event.