OCEAN CITY — Shortly after the resort’s parking task force recommended a plan that would hike some rates during the peak season, the committee expressed no desire to expand paid on-street parking in areas where it no longer exists.
In its second meeting after the summer hiatus last week, the resort’s parking task force reconvened last Thursday with two major objectives on its agenda. The first was to finalize recommendations on tweaking the hourly parking rate structure in areas where paid parking already exists including the Inlet lot, the various municipal lots in the downtown area and on the street south of 10th Street. The second, and likely most contentious, objective during last week’s meeting was to begin discussions on possibly expanding on-street paid parking.
The task force knocked out the first objective, agreeing to recommend to the Mayor and Council a modified rate and timing structure for the areas where paid parking already exists. The long and short of that plan is a modest hike in the hourly rates during peak season when demand is the highest. The trade-off in that plan for residents and visitors is free parking during the week in the shoulder seasons.
Before going any further, it should be noted any action or votes taken by the task force are merely recommendations. The Mayor and Council will ultimately decide on the direction for the town’s paid parking structure. With the recommendations for the existing paid parking areas, or the low-hanging fruit, dispensed with, the task force under the direction of City Engineer Terry McGean was ready to start tackling the issue of expanded on-street paid parking.
“Now, we get to the hard part,” said McGean. “There are a handful of proposals for expanding on-street parking and I think that’s going to be much more contentious.”
Almost before that debate could begin, however, task force member and business owner G. Hale Harrison attempted to put an abrupt end to it. Harrison pointed out the task force moments earlier had approved recommendations that would raise the hourly parking rates in areas where it already exists.
Harrison said the complicated proposals on the table, which included plans to expand paid parking from 11th Street to 146th Street, or even 33rd Street to the Delaware line were complicated and fraught with challenges.
“As a hotel operator with a career in hospitality in Ocean City, I know how hard this is going to be to explain and I know how many angry customers we’re going to have,” he said. “It’s not just about the money. It’s about fairness and it’s about the complicated way of paying.”
Harrison also pointed out the recommended pay structure in the areas where paid parking already exists would result in an estimated $1 million in additional revenue. He made a motion to not recommend any further expansion of on-street paid parking.
“We just raised the room tax rate this year and minutes ago we raised the parking rates in areas where paid parking already exists in the downtown area,” he said. “I’ll make a motion right now to recommend no more parking meters. It’s just a bad idea. Enough is enough.”
Parking task force member Chris Mitchell agreed perhaps just adjusting the rates in the areas where paid parking already exists went far enough for now.
“I have concerns about expanding paid parking and there are compelling arguments for both sides,” he said. “In some of these areas with on-street parking, the condos rely on those spaces. It’s something we need to consider. We just approved raising the rates in the existing areas.”
Councilman and task force member Dennis Dare suggested it might be premature to simply dismiss the concept without going through the process of reviewing the options.
“The easiest thing to do is to do nothing,” he said. “The only place between Cape Charles, Va. and Cape Henlopen where you can go to the beach and park for free is right here in Ocean City.”
While proposals on the table included expanding paid parking from 11th Street to 33rd Street, and even 11th Street to the Delaware line, Dare suggested considering just an expansion to 27th Street.
“Maybe we don’t go to 33rd Street,” he said. “Maybe we go to 27th Street, which is a logical end because it’s the end of the Boardwalk. I do agree maybe considering 34th Street to 146th Street is too extreme, but maybe 11th Street to 27th Street makes sense. The goal is to reduce the taxpayer burden, and this might be an opportunity to balance that out a little more.”
Dare dusted off an airplane analogy he evoked in earlier task force meetings. He compared parking in prime spaces immediately adjacent to the beach as flying first class, while parking further away was akin to flying coach. He said there was a cost anticipated between the different options.
“If you go to the beach for four or five hours and you pay four or five dollars to park right next to the beach, I think that might be acceptable for most,” he said. “I’m talking about the regular beach hours when the beach patrol is no duty. I’m not talking about 24 hours a day.”
Ocean City Police Department representative Glen McIntyre said the OCPD is essentially the complaint department for the existing paid parking situation in the resort. He said expanding it would create enforcement challenges for the OCPD.
“Our department received 134 phone calls in an eight-hour period from people who felt like it was an injustice,” he said. “If we want to dip our toe in the pool and see how hot or cold it would be, maybe we should consider going to 27th Street. If we started talking about going beyond 33rd Street to the Delaware line, that would be a huge pushup for our department from an enforcement standpoint.”
Harrison said the idea of expanding paid parking was not a new concept. He said he believed the business community members on the task force were of like mind in a lack of support for expanding it.
“We have been talking about this for months,” he said. “I think the business community members who are part of this task force have no will to expand paid parking.”
Harrison said he and others understood the objective of the task force was to maximize the revenue from parking in a fair and balanced way while keeping it palatable for the residents and visitors. He said he also understood the upcoming budget challenges the town faces.
“We all get the city needs revenue,” he said. “We all understand the implications of the minimum wage change and that the city needs more money. This just seems like a hard and negative way to get it.”
Councilman and task force member John Gehrig questioned if the timing of the motion to simply put the kibosh on expanding paid parking was appropriate before all options were laid out.
“My point is, this seems like a premature vote,” he said. “It seems like there are a lot of unanswered questions. We’ll never get to any common ground if we just say this is it and we don’t want any expanded paid parking. It shouldn’t kill it down the road because we don’t want to deal with it today.”
Gehrig agreed a major expansion of paid on-street parking was likely premature. He said he didn’t want to simply squash the idea right from the get-go.
“I agree we shouldn’t go too far too fast,” he said. “I just don’t think this should be the end of the conversation. I don’t think the conversation should end today.”
Task force member Joe Groves reminded the committee a vote one way or the other last Thursday did not kill the concept, but was merely a recommendation to the Mayor and Council.
“We’re just voting today on if we do or don’t support additional paid parking,” he said. “This task force was formed to give recommendations to the City Council. If the council doesn’t like the recommendations, or wants to tweak those recommendations, that’s up to you seven. Voting now doesn’t mean the city doesn’t even consider it, it just means the task force doesn’t recommend it. I just don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”
Council Secretary and task force member Mary Knight agreed the committee was merely making recommendations after months of debate and careful review of the data. She said the council would likely take the task force’s recommendations into account when the elected officials and staff delve into strategic planning sessions later this month.
“There are a lot of options to consider,” she said. “It will be discussed at strategic planning later this month. It has to at least be discussed.”
Before a call for a vote on Harrison’s motion not to recommend any expansion of paid parking, Dare said he would abstain for the time being.
“I’m going to abstain on this vote today,” he said. “We’re not saying forever. We’re just saying not at this point in time.”
The vote was 4-2 in favor of recommending no expansion of paid on-street parking at this time. It’s important to note the votes was a relatively low sample size with few voting members of a much larger task force present last Thursday. However, it appears likely the vote would have followed the same general direction if the meeting had been heavily attended.