OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved a plan to repave and widen sidewalks along Robin Drive, but not before debating over whether the project was driven by fear or aesthetics.
For the last three weeks, the Mayor and Council have been debating the merits of a handful of options for the repaving of Robin Drive, the densely populated corridor that runs east to west from Coastal Highway to the bayside at 28th Street. Each year, the city repaves certain streets with an ongoing street paving program and identifies where other improvements can be gained at the same time.
As part of the relatively new Complete Streets policy, any time a roadway is considered for repaving, broader consideration is given to other pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements. In some cases, that means widening sidewalks, undergrounding utilities where possible and adding marked or shared bicycle lanes where possible.
Complicating the Robin Drive repaving project is the desire among residents along the corridor to not lose any on-street parking spaces. Last week, City Engineer Terry McGean presented several options that were essentially winnowed down to two labeled 2A and 3A, which were brought back for discussion on Monday.
Both 2A and 3A achieve the desired goals of gaining eight-foot sidewalks on both sides of Robin Drive, while expanding the vehicle travel lanes to 12.5 feet, facilitating wider lanes for a shared bicycle path. Each would have an impact on on-street parking to some degree. Under 2A, six parking spaces near Coastal Highway adjacent to the mini-golf course would be removed to facilitate a dedicated left turn lane near the intersection.
However, under 2A, 11 on-street parking spaces would be added on the north side of the street on either end of a long curve in the roadway. Under 3A, the same six spaces adjacent to the mini-golf facility would be lost along with seven other spaces on the south side of the street, two of which are time-restricted.
However, the same 11 parking spaces would be gained along the curve on the north side of the street. In short, option 2A would result in a net gain of five on-street parking spaces, while option 3A would result in a net loss of two standard on-street parking spaces along with two time-restricted parking spaces.
Beyond the parking considerations, perhaps the biggest difference between 2A and 3A is the distance of the project. For example, 2A would gain wider sidewalks and wider travel lanes from Coastal Highway to Judlee Road, roughly one block or 380 feet. Option 3A would run from Coastal Highway to Sparrow Lane, or a distance of 1,400 feet, essentially tripling the length of the project.
Of course, there is a cost associated with tripling the length of the project. The base project, or just simply milling and repaving Robin Drive and making minor adjustments in the sidewalks to make them ADA compliant would cost $1.12 million. Option 2A would add $48,000 to the bottom line. Option 3A would add another $146,000, a difference of just under $100,000, which would become a huge bone of contention later in the debate on Monday. Essentially, for another $100,000, the town would be able to triple the distance on which wider sidewalks would be gained.
Before the Mayor and Council took up the debate, the floor was opened to public comments. Delegate Wayne Hartman, speaking as a property owner along Robin Drive, thanked McGean for tweaking the plan to gain more parking spaces and minimize the impact on on-street parking in the residential neighborhood.
“I’d like to thank the city engineer for finding those extra spots,” he said. “That certainly is appealing to me as a property owner. Losing any spots would be a detriment to the community.”
Hartman also pointed out widening the sidewalks could create additional liability in terms of maintenance for the private property owners along the roadway. Per city ordinance, the shares responsibility for maintaining the sidewalks when the crack, crumble or otherwise need replacing with a 50% split.
Hartman pointed out the wider sidewalks on Robin Drive but throughout the town in general could create a larger burden on the property owners when it came to maintaining them. Mayor Rick Meehan said that point was valid and the city should look into the wording in the ordinance.
“I think that is a legitimate request,” he said. “The Mayor and Council should have a discussion about the ordinance. We don’t want to add any burden to the property owners.”
When the council took up the debate between options 2A and 3A, the distance added by taking the project to Sparrow Lane, and the $100,000 additional cost associated with it, became the center of the often chippy discussion. Councilman Mark Paddack said he wasn’t in favor of spending $100,000 to gain eight-foot sidewalks on both sides of the street all the way to Sparrow Lane.
“All of the emails I got in favor of 3A came from one condo,” he said. “The rest came in favor of 2A. I’m not in favor of spending $100,000 for concrete.”
Paddack then made a motion to approve 2A, a motion seconded by Councilman John Gehrig, who pointed out widening the sidewalks to eight feet on Robin Drive was basically a feel-good measure from an aesthetic point without any real value in terms of public safety.
“Eight-foot sidewalks are nice, but I’m just not willing to spend $100,000 to get wider sidewalks,” he said. “Five-foot sidewalks have served Ocean City well for 100 years.”
However, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the Mayor and Council had adopted the Complete Streets initiative to address issues such as Robin Drive.
“I’m not going to be able to support the motion,” he said. “We adopted the Complete Streets philosophy of improving safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists and this accomplishes that for all three groups. We can’t put a price tag of $100,000 on safety.”
Dare pointed out extending the project to Sparrow Lane essentially tripled its length for a relatively modest $100,000 investment.
“The 2A option is just one block,” he said. “By going all the way to Sparrow is the equivalent of three times that. I feel like the responsible thing to do is to maximize it in the name of safety.”
Gehrig said all on the council were interested in improving safety wherever possible, but the statistics show there is no significant safety problem on Robin Drive with the existing five-foot sidewalks.
“Everybody wants safety, but it comes with a cost,” he said. “Statistics don’t show that is a dangerous area for pedestrians. I’m not buying it. It’s not like we’re going to have unsafe sidewalks. We don’t need to spend $100,000 on something that looks nice, or so people can walk side by side. It’s just not worth $100,000 for fear of something that could happen.”
Meehan attempted to calm what was becoming a contentious debate. He said wider sidewalks have improved safety and improved the quality of life in neighborhoods where they have already been accomplished.
“I guess it’s just a different way of looking at things,” he said. “Wherever we’ve widened sidewalks, people have loved it. I think it really makes the neighborhood nicer and the goal is making Ocean City move livable. I just think 3A will make Robin Drive a better neighborhood.”
Council President Lloyd Martin pointed to the widened sidewalks on major thoroughfares in Caine Woods uptown such was 139th Street and 141st Street.
“We widened the sidewalks on those streets in Caine Woods and it really made a difference,” he said. “People aren’t walking in the street anymore. They can walk side by side on the sidewalk even if they are carrying beach chairs.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca pointed out option 2A only gained one block of improvements including wider sidewalks and shared bicycle lanes.
“I just don’t think Judlee to Coastal Highway does enough,” he said. “Every email I got supported 3A. I just think it’s safer.”
Gehrig reiterated his point that safety was being presented as a valid reason for spending the additional $100,000 for 3A, asserting the majority of the council was acting out of fear.
“We might as well put up a padded wall or a NASCAR fence,” he said. “We’re talking about spending $100,000 for aesthetics when safety concerns don’t bear it out statistically. I just think it’s irresponsible. We’re being sold fear for $100,000 and we’re buying it. We’re going to spend $100,000 because we’re being told somebody is going to get killed if we don’t.”
Meehan objected to the notion 3A was being supported because of fear.
“I’m not supporting this because I think somebody is going to get killed,” he said. “I’m supporting 3A because I think it’s a good investment in our residential community.”
Councilman Matt James agreed, pointing out the majority of the residents he heard from supported 3A.
“I’m not supporting 3A because I was sold fear,” he said. “I’m supporting 3A because that’s what I heard from the residents and it’s their tax money. I’m not supporting this out of fear. This is what the people who will be impacted the most asked for.”
Paddack referenced his decades-long career with the Ocean City Police Department, which often had him patrolling in the Robin Drive area. He said in all of his years, there were only a handful of incidents along that stretch of roadway.
“None of you have worn my shoes or put your butts in a bicycle seat,” he said. “Because it feels good to put eight-foot sidewalks in a residential neighborhood, we’re going to spend another $100,000. I agree it’s nice, but we can meet every one of these goals and objectives with 2A and not spend the $100,000.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight enumerated her reasons for supporting 3A and none of them included fear.
“Number one, I’m not fearful,” she said. “I’ll be voting for 3A for some very valid reasons and not because I’m scared. Believe me, I’m not scared of many things and I’m not scared because I think someone will get hit.”
In the end, Paddack’s motion to approve 2A failed with a 5-2 vote with he and Gehrig in support. The council then approved 3A with the same 5-2 vote the other way.