Zoning Code Nonconformities Debated

OCEAN CITY — How long is an appropriate amount of time to extend special circumstances, or nonconformities, for property redevelopments was the subject of debate that ended with resort officials seeking the opinion of the planning commission.

During Tuesday’s work session, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville broached the subject of nonconformities and the appropriate amount of time to allow them to be extended. As the name implies, a nonconformity is an exception of sorts allowing a developer to break from strict adherence to the zoning code when special circumstances exist.

For example, the zoning code might call for a certain property to have 10 dedicated parking spaces on site, but the redevelopment plans only allow for eight. In another example, the zoning code might only allow for a three-story structure, but a property owner or developer might submit a site plan for an attractive and desirable project that calls for four stories. The redevelopment of aging properties and dilapidated properties is desirable for many reasons, but nonconformities are often required.

Sometimes, the call is made at the planning commission level during site plan review, for example. In other cases, the determinations of whether to allow nonconformities falls on those at the departmental and staff levels. With recent changes in his department, including the promotion of Kay Gordy to Zoning Administrator, for example, Neville on Tuesday said his staff was seeking some guidance on the nonconformity issue. In a perfect world, strict adherence to the code would be the best result, but sometimes there are gray areas during which the rules can be bent in order to make a redevelopment project even better.

“We often have to make determinations on transferrable property nonconformities,” he said. “This is often discussed at the staff level. If a home or a condo or a hotel is torn down and redeveloped, how much of the nonconformity should be allowed? We’re recommending strict adherence to the zoning code.”

The issue is complicated to be sure. For example, should a nonconformity approved years ago for a certain property be transferrable if the property is sold, or does it go away? If the nonconformity is transferrable, just how long does it remain in place before a new owner redevelops? Neville said his department must make those types of decisions nearly every day.

“We often get involved in evaluating an existing situation,” he said. “We’re asked to make decisions that can be valid for two years or more. That’s what we’re often faced with and we need to determine what is an acceptable timeframe.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed the nonconformity issue was complicated and suggested the planning commission should likely be the body to make those decisions.

“This is a big issue,” he said. “The planning commission is the hearing body for the Mayor and Council and I think it’s probably appropriate for them to weigh in on this.”

Meehan said its important to remember nonconformity decisions impact more than just the property owners.

“There are significant ramifications to this,” he said. “I know there is a willingness, or even a desire, to get away from nonconformities. In many cases, it affects the neighboring property owners, especially when it comes to parking or building heights for example.”

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.