OCEAN CITY — More tough talk and the unveiling of some new tools in the enforcement tool box were the focus of the town’s latest motorized special event task force meeting on Thursday.
The motorized special event task force reconvened after a months-long layoff to begin planning for a series of sanctioned and unsanctioned special events this fall. After several troublesome motorized special events a few years back, Ocean City formed the task force – comprised of elected officials, business owners and law enforcement representatives — to begin exploring strategies to address some of the lawlessness and abject bad behavior associated with some of the participants.
Out of those early sessions came the first iteration of legislation that allowed for the creation of a special event zone with increased penalties and other fines. Those early sessions also led to an increased police presence in town during certain special events in partnership with allied law enforcement agencies along with a stronger partnership between the town and its residents and business owners.
Still, those early measures, which did achieve some successes, were not enough as the lawlessness and reckless behavior continued and even worsened in some cases, particularly with the unsanctioned pop-up social media-driven event formally known as H2O International (H2Oi). Most of the agendas and other literature disbursed by the town and the task force still refers to the event as H2Oi. Indeed, the social media pages dedicated to the event refer to it in the same way.
To be fair, it’s important to note the H2Oi event was never sanctioned by the town of Ocean City nor did it bill itself as an event held in the resort. However, in recent years, the annual event typically held in late September and early October has been associated with lawlessness and recklessness that spurred the creation of a task force to begin exploring ways to curb some of the illicit behavior associated with some of the motorized special events.
Again, fairly or not the H2Oi event was labeled the black sheep of the motorized special events amid a flock of events that aren’t all entirely squeaky clean. The official H2Oi event at Fort Whaley in Whaleyville was well-organized, generally calm and peaceful and included the Volkswagen and Audi enthusiast “family” that registered and participated in the sanctioned events.
However, like many of the special events, it was the thousands of non-registered participants who came to the resort during that weekend with all manner of tricked-out and modified vehicles that did not register for H2Oi that caused most of the problems in Ocean City. During Thursday’s task force meeting, Councilman Tony DeLuca pointed out it wasn’t entirely accurate to call the late September event H2Oi anymore and suggested calling it the unsanctioned pop-up rally and the task force members agreed.
Mayor Rick Meehan opened the meeting with a brief overview of what has been accomplished already by the task force and what remains to be done.
“The results of this task force and the initiatives that have come out of it have made a difference,” he said. “Everybody talking together and getting out ideas has made this successful. That’s why we’re back here today. The work isn’t finished.”
Meehan said the task force’s efforts in advance of the fall motorized special event season boiled down to two basic issues.
“There are basically two elephants in the room,” he said. “The first is the COVID virus because that will continue to impact all of our special events. The second is the unsanctioned H2Oi that has wreaked havoc on our community, and we can’t allow that to continue.”
Despite the successes of the original special event zone, local officials believed it still lacked enough teeth to truly be effective and went back to Annapolis this winter seeking approval of an enhanced special event bill. At the close of the General Assembly session cut short in March because of COVID-19, state lawmakers passed the legislation just under the wire.
Among other things, the enhanced bill creates an enhanced list of violations under the larger umbrella of “exhibition driving.” According to the bill’s language, among the offenses under the umbrella of exhibition driving are operating a vehicle in a manner that produces abrupt acceleration or deceleration, skidding, swerving, raucous engine noise, or wheels losing contact with the ground.
For the first time in the evolution of the special event zone legislation, the enhanced penalties now include potential arrest with heavy fines and points. It also allows law enforcement to impound vehicles for violations defined under the exhibition driving statute. Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro said the dual threat of arrest and impoundment could provide the hammer law enforcement needs to really deter some of the illicit behavior associated with the event.
“It’s a must-appear offense,” he said. “We’re in good position to make arrests and impound vehicles for the most egregious behavior. We had limited capabilities before. We could write a citation for spinning tires, for example, but it just had an $80 fine. That just wasn’t cutting it.”
Meehan agreed, particularly with the impound component of the legislation.
“I think it’s significant,” he said. “I think having the ability to take vehicles off the roadway will be important for us.”
Impounding vehicles will likely hit home for the car enthusiast who could ostensibly have their vehicles yanked early during the special event and not be able to retrieve until the following Monday or Tuesday. Parallel to the enhanced special event legislation, the Mayor and Council are expected to review and approve amendments to the town’s existing towing ordinance. One of the key elements of those changes would require vehicles impounded during the special events to be released to an approved tow company. In other words, if a violator had his or her vehicle impounded on a Friday, they could not get it back until they made arrangements with a tow company to tow it out of the town’s impound lot. Essentially, they would have to pay for towing twice.
“When you start to affect them with impounding, some of the bad behavior will take care of itself,” said Buzzuro. “An impounded vehicle has to be released to a tow company. They will have to pay for the initial tow, then they will have to pay to get it out of the impound lot. It can get quite expensive.”
Buzzuro said another tactic expected to be deployed by local law enforcement this fall is altering traffic patterns, closing off certain known trouble spots and other roadway changes to curb some of the lawlessness and reckless behavior. The chief was reluctant to divulge too much detail about those planned changes for obvious reasons, suffice it to say they will likely impact all drivers on the road during the special events including residents and visitors going about their daily lives.
“We plan to change the traffic patterns around,” he said. “It is going to create traffic issues and congestion. There’s no doubt about that. The patterns will be changed in some areas and it’s going to create congestion and inconvenience. If you don’t have to be out on the roads on those days, I recommend not being out there.”
Meehan said the inconvenience and potential frustration for locals and visitors with the planned traffic changes could be small price to pay for a few days if they achieve the desired results.
“If we’re going to take back our town, we’re all going to have to make sacrifices,” he said. “There will be come inconvenience for everybody. As we’ve said, nothing has been taken off the table. We have to do whatever we can to remedy this situation.”
While much of the task force’s discussion focused on the driver’s on the roadway and the reckless behavior associated with that element of the motorized special events, Buzzuro said he has been working with the allied law enforcement community and the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office on enhanced penalties for the countless onlookers and bystanders. It’s no secret, just as much trouble is caused by those who line the streets, egging on driver’s and filming the lawlessness create as many headaches for law enforcement as the driver’s do.
“From an operational standpoint, much of what we talk about is behavior on the roadways,” he said. “We’re going to potentially have thousands of visitors here during this unsanctioned event and some of the activity of the bystanders on the side of the road can become pretty raucous. We have laws that can be applied and we’re going to utilize them. One is unlawful assembly with a violent tendency. It’s essentially a riot.”
Another tool in the toolbox discussed on Thursday is the OCPD’s Trespass Enforcement Authorization Program, or TEAP. Just this week, the OCPD reached out to business owners and residences to sign up for the TEAP program, which allows law enforcement to come on private property to enforce laws and resolve situations, for example.
The TEAP program is an effective tool at all times of the year, but especially during some of the motorized special events. Event participants often congregate on the parking lots of private businesses after they are closed. By signing up for the TEAP program, business owners and their agents or representatives essentially allow police to go on their property and take the appropriate enforcement actions without them being present. Buzzuro said TEAP is especially important during certain motorized events.
“It’s tremendous tool,” he said. “When a business is closed and there are issues, it gives us the authority to go on private property and handle or resolve problems. We’ll protect your property when you aren’t open or you’re not there.”