Resort Task Force Reviews Proposals To Add Paid Parking To More Ocean Blocks With Protections For Residents

Resort Task Force Reviews Proposals To Add Paid Parking To More Ocean Blocks With Protections For Residents
A parking meter is pictured covered in 2013 near the Delaware line after the Mayor and Council reversed a previous decision to expand paid parking. File Photo

OCEAN CITY — While certain parts of the consultant’s recommendations could include paid parking in at least some ocean blocks the entire length of town, the town’s parking task force is no closer to reaching a solution after its third meeting.

From the beginning, parking task force members have asserted the goal was not to automatically jump to an increase in the amount of paid parking in Ocean City. At the task force’s second meeting two weeks ago, the focus changed to finding ways to increase parking revenue to close an anticipated $1.7 million budget deficit and expanding paid street parking in certain areas, especially ocean blocks, was deemed a potential solution.

At Wednesday’s third task force meeting, consultant Dan Kupferman of Walker Consultants, who was hired by the city to direct the exercise, laid out a series of recommendations based on the data collected and the input of task force members. Among other things, Kupferman recommended adding paid parking in the ocean block from 11th to 33rd streets. That area, which has been explored in the past, was targeted for demand reasons because of its proximity to the beach and Boardwalk.

The recommendation included a set-aside for spaces held by local residents and property owners with permits in a ratio yet to be determined, although a 50-50 split was bandied about for purposes of discussion. That proposal would increase revenue by an estimated $600,000, although there were many variables to work out.

Perhaps more eye-opening was a recommendation to add some paid parking in the ocean block from 34th Street to the Delaware line. Following a similar formula that would allow for a proposed 50-50 split between metered spaces and free spaces open for residential permit holders, that proposal would raise an estimated $1.2 million. Combined, the two proposals would raise an estimated $1.8 million, or just around the stated goal of $1.7 million in new revenue.

The target of the proposed paid parking expansion appears to be the day-trippers. The conventional thinking has always been the three basic pillars of revenue for the town are property taxes paid by the resident and non-resident property owners, the room tax paid by vacationers who choose to rent accommodations and parking revenue, which is largely borne by day-trippers, although the case can certainly be made paid parking is also an expense borne by the latter two in many cases. To that end, expanding parking revenue can offset some of the responsibilities carried by property tax and room tax revenue.

During the last task force session, a recommendation was made to simply raise the hourly rate at the areas where paid parking already exists by 50 cents or a dollar, which could meet the revenue needs without expanding paid parking in traditional areas of free parking. However, Kupferman re-emphasized on Wednesday there is also a fairness issue with paid parking concentrated in the downtown area.

“Parking revenue can take care of some of the major elements of your budget,” he said. “That’s the goal here. At least that’s what I’m getting from these meetings and listening to the task force. You have a unique situation here. You have a downtown core area that has paid parking, and you have vast other areas that aren’t paid parking. That’s the inequity.”

Kupferman pointed to the Inlet lot as an example. He said increasing the hourly rate from the current $3 per hour to $4 per hour on the weekends in the summer could increase revenue by $300,000. Or, increasing the hourly rate at the Inlet lot by 50 cents every day could increase revenue by $400,000. However, Kupferman pointed out the rather modest gains would not offset the added confusion and the possible public relations hit.

“I’m not sure hammering away at the Inlet lot is worth it,” he said. “That’s really a healthy situation. It’s a crowded lot with healthy revenue and it fills up sometimes but not always. I think it’s right-sized and right priced.”

That brought the discussion back to the proposal to add paid parking in the ocean-block. Kupferman said the majority of the town’s available parking is free, which was somewhat unheard of in a tourist destination.

“Sixty-one percent of your parking supply is unpaid,” he said. “That’s 3,975 ocean-block spaces. It doesn’t make sense to me. We’ve not seen a situation like this before.”

City Engineer and de facto parking guru Terry McGean said the focus of the task force was on ocean block parking and bayside street parking was not included in the exercise.

“The goal is for day-trippers to pay their fair share,” he said. “I don’t know that the day-trippers are parking back on the bayside. Theoretically, we could meter every space in town, but that’s not the goal here.”

Mayor Rick Meehan, who has reiterated his displeasure for an increase in paid street parking, pointed out even with 50 percent set aside for residential permit holders, that still wouldn’t meet the demand during the summer.

“So, we would have roughly 1,500 paid spaces in the ocean-block and 1,500 available for permit holders. That’s 50,000 people trying to park in 1,500 permit spaces. How is that going to work? I know how the residents and taxpayers think because I get all of the calls and emails. They’re going to say ‘I have a permit and I can’t find a space to park.”

Instead, Meehan advocated for other alternatives or a combination of alternatives for meeting the parking revenue goals including but not limited to making the shuttle from the Park-and-Ride in West Ocean City free to encourage day-trippers to use that underutilized resource.

“I know we’re looking at revenue, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason,” he said. “Some of this is a way of life in Ocean City and part of the Ocean City experience. How much of that do we want to change?”

Kupferman pointed out his role, as directed by the desires of many on the task force, was closing that stated $1.7 million budget shortfall and that he did not advocate for a complete overhaul of the town’s parking system.

“I’m trying to create a revenue stream,” he said. “That was the direction I got from this task force. We’re looking at closing that $1.7 million gap.”

He said the proposal to increase paid street parking with the set-asides for residential permit holders met those stated goals.

“Yes, we’re considering expanding it,” he said. “The 50-50 split is logical and it doesn’t dramatically change the parking situation in town. It meets the shortfall and it’s equitable. I heard from somebody at the last meeting to just raise the rates where paid parking already exists. That might be more popular politically, but it doesn’t address the fairness issue.”

Kupferman said the permit process would need to be refined, but it allows for ample free parking for residents and property owners while extracting the necessary parking revenue from day-trippers and other visitors who don’t necessarily contribute to the cost of maintaining the town and its beaches and Boardwalk in other ways.

“The reason we recommend doing it this way is we want to protect the residents,” he said. “We want to set aside some free parking for the residents.”

However, Meehan cautioned against a broad-brush approach that would add paid parking in at least some areas of the ocean-block in the resort.

“When we try to solve the whole problem all at once, it usually fails,” he said. “When we try to implement something town-wide, it typically fails.”

Councilman Dennis Dare suggested a compromise of sorts and used an airline passenger analogy to illustrate his point. He said there should be an expectation to pay for certain parking spots immediately adjacent to the beach.

“I liken it to an airline,” he said. “Some people ride coach and some people pay more to go first-class. Some people will pay for oceanfront parking if they want premium parking and some people will stay in coach and drive around and park on the bayside. If there are 50 spaces on a given street in the ocean-block, maybe a dozen closest to the beach are metered. That can be the premium parking and there is a cost associated with that.  Maybe that’s a first step.”

Task force member and resort hotelier G. Hale Harrison said the challenge is not extracting more revenue from vacationers and condo renters who already contribute so much to the town’s task force in other ways.

“I’d be cautious about doing anything that would greatly impact our visitors because they are already paying room tax, or indirectly property tax if they are renting a condo,” he said. “There is already a lot of tax being generated in that ocean block. I just think the solution could be worse than the problem.”

In the end, the task force was no closer to reaching a consensus. It will meet again to take a deeper dive into some of the existing data, explore some of the issues associated with the Park-and-Ride and take a closer look at the cost of enforcing expanded paid parking, for example. The recommendations also come with possible trade-offs for visitors and residents including relaxing the paid parking rules in the offseason in April and October, for example. It has been pointed out any proposed changes that come out of the task force would not be implemented in the upcoming summer season.

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.