OCEAN CITY — A proposed small boat rental business ended up on the rocks this week after resort officials denied a conditional use request over safety concerns.
The Mayor and Council heard a request Monday for a conditional use permit allowing a proposed business to rent three, two-person mini-power boats out of a sandy area just south of Sunset Park near the Inlet. The three proposed vessels would be about 10 feet in length and would carry two occupants. The vessels would have 15-horsepower outboard motors capable of doing roughly 20 mph.
The planning commission last month sent a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council after a marathon hearing on the conditional use request. During that hearing, resort planners voiced some misgivings about the proposed business including the location’s proximity to the Inlet, the direction in which the rented vessels could go and the lack of a guide, similar to what is provided to jet ski renters, among other concerns.
The planning commission ultimately voted to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council after attaching a series of conditions to the approval. For example, the hours of operation would be limited to sunrise to sunset, the operator would be required to be tethered to the ignition switch, life jackets would be required at all times, a rescue boat would have to be on-site in the event of an emergency and the vessels could only utilize the area south of the business location and could not head north and under the Route 50 bridge, for example.
On Monday, Zoning Administrator Frank Hall presented the planning commission’s findings of fact to the Mayor and Council, but the proposal was virtually shot down right off the bat with a motion by Council Secretary Mary Knight.
“I’m going to make a motion to not accept the findings of fact,” she said. “I just can’t approve this because of all of the safety reasons.”
Councilman Mark Paddack voiced grave concerns with the location of the proposed boat rental business and its proximity to the Inlet including the interaction with vessels large and small during the height of the summer season.
“The issue I see with this, that particular location is just highly congested with commercial operations, sportfishing boats, the Route 50 bridge is nearby, I have a lot of concerns with these small boats with 15 horsepower engines,” he said. “We have issues all summer long with jet skis and near misses and hits in that area and they have guides.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said the proposed location near the Inlet was reason enough to vote against approving the conditional use.
“Not only is it dangerous, it’s just too close to the Inlet,” he said. “The current through there is ridiculous. The analogy I use is a toilet flushing.”
Knight said she read through the transcripts of the planning commission’s hearing and wasn’t confident all of the safety concerns had been addressed.
“I was surprised the commission came up with a yes with all of the concerns raised,” she said. “As I read through the testimony, it just seems like the owner didn’t have many answers.”
Knight agreed the swirling currents around the Inlet area were dangerous and voiced concern the proposed rental vessels had not been tested in the local waters. She said she was not anti-business, just pro-safety.
“The current through there concerns me,” she said. “I can easily see this boat flipping. The owner has never navigated the Inlet and has never been in this boat. I’m not making the motion because I’m against the business, I’m making the motion because of the area.”
Councilman Matt James raised concerns about the larger boat traffic in that area.
“In that area, you have larger boats throwing a pretty big wake,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much for one of these boats to get swamped and get in trouble. It’s a safety issue.”
Paddack agreed, pointing out a tragic incident two years ago involving a rented pontoon in the same general area.
“I’m all for small business making a buck, but not at the expense of risking a life,” he said.
Councilman John Gehrig said the proposed business might work if the owner and operator was able to get the renters to safer areas.
“The only way this could work with inexperienced boaters is if there was a guide,” he said. “If he could get them to calm, shallow areas, this could work. He just can’t get them there without a guide.”
Hall said including a guide was not part of the applicant’s business plan.
“He’s not going to have a business plan if he doesn’t reconsider some of these things like a guide, for example,” said Gehrig.
Paddack said the guide issue was less important than the overall location of the business and its proximity to the Inlet.
“Even with a guide, the ratio would be one for three boats,” he said. “That location is just horrendously dangerous. I could support this if the business was further north, even north of the Route 90 bridge where it isn’t so dangerous.”
The council voted 7-0 to deny the planning commission’s findings of fact and deny the approval for the conditional use at that location.