Downtown Redevelopment Site Plan Extension Sparks Debate

OCEAN CITY — A seemingly innocuous request to approve a site plan extension for the redevelopment of a corner lot in the heart of the resort’s downtown area this week led to a broader discussion on when the statute of limitations should run out for such requests.

The Ocean City Planning Commission on Tuesday had before them a request to extend the site plan approval for the proposed redevelopment of a property on the northwest corner of Dorchester Street and Philadelphia Avenue. The proposed redevelopment plan calls for a mixed-use three-story structure with retail on the street level and office space on the second level.

The property owner, Christopher Reeves, first gained site plan approval for the project in 2012. For a variety of reasons including uncertain economic conditions and the chronic flooding in the area, for example, Reeves has not yet started building the project. The original site plan approval has been extended multiple times in eight years and Reeves was asking for an additional two years.

The commission appeared inclined to approve the extension before a larger discussion of approving site plan extensions in general. Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis questioned if there was ever a time when a developer has been told the site plan has expired and you have to submit a new one.

“What is the protocol?” he said. “This will be eight years and now 10 if we grant the two-year extension.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said there is no hard and fast deadline for extending site plans.

“There isn’t a specific protocol,” she said. “We take it as a case-by-case basis. This is a long extension, but we certainly don’t want to squelch a small property owner’s desire to improve his property.”

Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor said the site plan before the commission on Tuesday had not changed since the original approval was granted in 2012, which was reason enough to grant the extension.

“The question is if the site plan came before us now, would we approve it?” she said. “If the answer is yes, then I think we can grant the extension.”

There was some discussion about a potential in the future to convert some of the space to housing, which would complicate the parking requirements. The original site plan came with a parking non-conformity, which essentially means it lacked the number of spaces for what the property is zoned for.

However, because there is no housing included in the plan, the parking requirements were relaxed somewhat, the idea being rental units typically require more parking than more transient retail and office space.

“My plan was never to put in housing units,” Reeves said. “I had housing units there before and it became a nuisance. That’s why it was torn down.”

Reeves said his desire was to redevelop the property in such a way that is consistent with the old town feel in that area of the resort. Losing the parking non-conformity might require him to revise the plan and come back with something less in keeping with downtown area.

“I want to build something that is complementary to downtown Ocean City,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is build some monstrosity with a parking garage on the first level and the other elements above street level.”

He also said he needed another extension because there were some uncertainties with that section of downtown, not the least of which is the chronic flooding problem.

“I have no immediate plan to build right now,” he said. “Ocean City is conducting a flooding study in that area right now. A couple of weeks ago, the street there was closed because of flooding. I don’t want to commit to building something before that study is concluded. It might call for raising the street or some other solution.”

Nonetheless, some on the commission remained reluctant to extend the site plan again.

“Things change over time,” said Gillis. “If he has no plans to build, why keep renewing the site plan approval? I just don’t think it’s prudent to keep extending and extending for 10 years, and now maybe 12 years.”

Zoning Analyst Kay Gordy said the property owner could lose the parking non-conformity if the site plan were to expire.

“When the site plan expires, the non-conformity goes away,” she said. “If he came back with a new site plan, he would lose the non-conformity. Now, he could ask for a new parking non-conformity, but there are no guarantees he would get it.”

With that said, the commission voted 4-0 with two members abstaining to approve the site plan extension. The approval did not include any limitation as to if this was the last one.

“You don’t want to handcuff someone,” said Planning Commissioner Joel Brous. “We’re not sure about the flooding solution or the financial solution. I don’t think we want to say build this in two years or else.”

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.