WEST OCEAN CITY – A local developer’s plan to donate 10 acres to the Lower Shore Land Trust has stalled as a result of county policy on sewer capacity in West Ocean City.
Local developer John H. Burbage Jr. offered earlier this year to donate 10 acres of commercially zoned land on Route 611 to the Lower Shore Land Trust. Prior to doing so, however, he planned to transfer the bulk of the land’s assigned EDUs (equivalent dwelling units) to a neighboring commercial property he owns. Both the transfer of the sewer capacity and the donation of the land have come to a standstill, however, as Worcester County officials have stressed that the transfer of EDUs is not allowed in the Mystic Harbour Service Area.
Various attempts to get the issue in front of the Worcester County Commissioners by Hugh Cropper, Burbage’s attorney, have failed.
“I’ve asked administration, I’ve asked individual commissioners,” Cropper said. “I don’t understand why they won’t put it on the agenda.”
According to Cropper, Burbage owns 10 acres of C-1 commercial property at the intersection of Route 611 and Airport Road as well as a parcel of C-2 commercial property just north of the 10-acres. Burbage wants to transfer 11 of the 12 EDUs associated with the 10-acre parcel to the other property, which is already cleared and better suited for imminent development. With the transfer, it would have a total of 31 EDUs.
When he initially asked the county to approve the transfer of the EDUs, Cropper cited a 2004 agreement that authorized such transfers. County staff, however, advised Cropper that the transfer provisions are past the seven-year period outlined in the agreement.
“The requested transfer cannot take place at this time,” Director of Environmental Programs Bob Mitchell wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to Cropper. “The Mystic Harbour Sanitary Service Area does not allow transfers of capacity between service area properties and the timeframe for transfers provided for within the 2004 agreement has expired.”
Cropper, however, sees no reason the transfer shouldn’t be approved. He said Burbage owned both properties, which are both on the east side of Route 611 and are both zoned commercial.
“Up until 2011, Mr. Burbage could have done this as a matter of right, by virtue of his turnover agreement,” Cropper said. “Nothing has changed since then.”
In a letter to Kelly Shannahan, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, Cropper pointed out that the property Burbage wanted to transfer additional EDUs to was closer to the area’s existing commercial center. He said it was also already cleared, as it had been used for the storage and stockpiling of equipment in recent years. He added that the EDUs allocated to both properties were part of the original 1,000 EDU allocation associated with the service area.
“They have been sitting idle for over 20 years,” Cropper wrote. “It would provide a public/private benefit to put these EDUs into service and start collecting user fees.”
In his response to Cropper, Shannahan reiterated Mitchell’s assertion that the transfer of EDUs was not permitted in the Mystic Harbour Service Area. In an interview Tuesday, he acknowledged that exceptions had been made in the past for the transfer of EDUs among other properties, though he pointed out staff at the time had opposed those transfers. When asked if an exception could be made in this case, Shannahan said staff did not support doing so.
“The staff does not believe it should be considered for an exception,” he said. “If the commission president asked us to put it on the agenda, we would put it on the agenda but at this point the president agrees with staff. We don’t have a transfer policy in Mystic Harbour and it’s not on the agenda for consideration.”
When asked why the commissioners weren’t willing to consider the issue, Diana Purnell, president of the board, directed questions to Shannahan.
Cropper maintains that in this case various parties would benefit if the transfer was permitted.
“It seems an unbelievable technicality that that allocation can’t be moved,” he said, adding that the EDUs would be utilized by the already cleared parcel with more intense commercial zoning while the wooded parcel nearer Airport Road would be given to Lower Shore Land Trust. “I think it’d be a good fit if after acquiring the property Lower Shore Land Trust talked to Ocean City about expanding the runway protection zone.”
Officials with the Lower Shore Land Trust are also hoping the commissioners will consider the matter so that the land donation can move forward.
“I’d assume the county commissioners would be supportive of this,” said Kate Patton, executive director of the Lower Shore Land Trust. “I think they understand the Land Trust is a respected conservation organization.”
Patton said she was thrilled that Burbage was even considering donating the property. Nevertheless, her organization did “a lot of due diligence” to ensure that accepting the land was in the nonprofit’s best interests.
“We’ve done all our background work,” she said. “The Land Trust is thrilled to have the opportunity of a gift like this.”
While it’s too early to speculate how the Lower Shore Land Trust would use the property, Patton said the removal of the majority of the property’s EDUs would ensure that it featured a low impact use.
“Regardless of what we’d do with it you’re minimizing any impact on it,” she said. “It’s also adding to our ability to do the land conservation that we do.”