North-End Water Taxi Service Approved

North-End Water Taxi Service Approved
The Mayor and Council this week approved a conditional use request for the Bay Hopper water taxi service operating out of a bayside lagoon at 118th Street. File Photo

OCEAN CITY – Satisfied the concerns of the neighboring community had been addressed, resort officials this week approved a conditional use request for a north-end water taxi service with conditions in place on the hours of operation and noise.

The Mayor and Council had before them on Monday 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. After a spirited public hearing last month, the Planning Commission forwarded a favorable recommendation to the full Mayor and Council.

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 has to 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.

Before the council took any action on the request this week, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville outlined some of the highlights of the planning commission’s public hearing and presented the weighty testimony.

“I think you’ll see the planning commission’s findings of fact address the residents’ concerns,” he said. “There is a limit on the number of boats, the noise and other conditions that fit the character and scale of the neighborhood.”

It quickly became apparent the council was supportive of the water taxi concept, but there were issues to be resolved before it could be approved. Councilman Dennis Dare said the business operated for a portion of last summer with no issues reported.

“I think it’s a great concept,” he said. “Through all of this I don’t recall anybody having a problem with the concept. It’s well-documented how it fits in the comprehensive plan. They operated the last half of last summer and there weren’t any complaints.”

Dare pointed out the proposed water taxi use could be less onerous than other situations at that location.

“This shopping center has 750 linear feet of bulkhead with riparian rights, so they do have some rights in there,” he said. “I’d say they could have 36 transient slips in there and have boats coming in and out of there all day. Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. This will have two boats with licensed captains when you could have a lot of novice boaters in there.”

That being said, Dare raised questions about the hours of operation, the apparent lack of public restrooms and noise concerns.

“I do think there needs to be some limits on the hours of operation,” he said. “The kiosk is in a commercial area, but both sides of that canal for about a mile is residential.”

There was a large discussion about the hours of operation, particularly the last pick-up time at the 118th Street location and, perhaps more importantly, the last drop-off time. It should be noted once the water taxis are out on the open water, they are free to move customers from one bayside establishment to the other without limits on the hours of operation.

In the context of the conditional use request at the 118th Street site, however, it was within the Mayor and Council’s purview to place limits on pick-up and drop-off times in the interest of insulating the neighbors from undue hardship. Council Secretary Mary Knight cautioned about being too restrictive with the drop-off time.

“I’d hate to be too restrictive on the end time,” she said. “If I want to go to dinner at nine o’clock in the summer and I want to take the water taxi back to my vehicle, I just think it would be detrimental to make them stop dropping people off at 9 p.m.”

However, Councilman Matt James raised concerns about potentially bringing back rowdy customers late at night.

“I do support this and I think it’s going to be great,” he said. “My one concern is with them bringing customers back at night being loud through those residential areas. I think we can restrict the hour at which they can bring people back, but I’m not sure what that hour is.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said there needed to be some consensus on some of the issues before a vote was called.

“A lot of us agree if the council is going to pass this, we need to address a couple of things,” he said. “Let’s be specific with some of these conditions. For example, I think the bathroom at the kiosk has to be made available to the public. The hours of operation need to be discussed. I think the last pick-up time at that location should be 9 p.m.”

Again, James voiced his concern with the proposed end-of-night drop-off time.

“The issue shouldn’t be the pick-up time, it should be the drop off time,” he said. “I don’t think we should have them coming back in there at 2 a.m. with 19 bar-hoppers on there. They should be able to stay out all night if they want. I’m just saying they shouldn’t be bringing customers down that canal late at night.”

Knight reiterated her position on the hours of operation and proposed limitations on drop-off times.

“I just think it would hamper their business,” she said. “Midnight is fine, but I don’t think 10 p.m. is fair. These guys have shown they are dedicated to making this work the best it can for the neighbors.”

Councilman John Gehrig pointed out the conditional use could be revoked at any time if there were continued violations of the conditions attached.

“We really need to settle the issue of the hours,” he said. “I think there has to be a later drop-off time. The operators can control their customers and the noise. They have to or they risk losing their business.”

With that said, Meehan laid out the conditions in an effort to pull the discussion back to the point a vote could be taken. For example, the floating dock would be limited to just the approved private commercial business and there could be no amplified noise from the vessels once they were in the residential canal.
The operation would be limited to just the two 27-foot vessels described in the application. The hours of operation would be 8:30 a.m. to midnight with the last pick-up time at the 118th Street location at 10 p.m.
With all of that clarified, the council voted unanimously to approve the conditional use. The conditional use will remain in effect for two years although the motion included a review of how it went after the first year.

The water taxi service is considered a transportation use and not a recreational amenity.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.