OCEAN CITY — While they didn’t flat out reject the idea, resort officials this week were lukewarm on the idea of allowing the Big Wheel attraction introduced at Trimper’s Rides this summer to encroach over the public right-of-way at the south end of the Boardwalk.
For the first time this summer, Trimper’s Rides introduced the Big Wheel, a massive Ferris wheel also known as The Inlet Eye with LED lights and 36 enclosed gondolas that reach 150 feet into the sky. The Big Wheel immediately changed the downtown landscape and was visible from much of Ocean City, Assateague and West Ocean City and drew visitors to the downtown area.
Trimper’s Rides wants to bring back the Big Wheel next year from April through July, but is requesting to move its footprint so that it is visible from the south end of the Boardwalk as visitors get closer to the attraction. As it stands now, the Big Wheel is visible from all over the resort area from afar, but when visitors get down to the south end of the Boardwalk, the view of the attraction is blocked by the height of the buildings in that area.
As a result, Trimper’s is requesting to move the Big Wheel to the east. Doing so, however, will make the ride encroach 12 to 13 feet over the public right-of-way in that area of the Boardwalk. To be clear, the Big Wheel would not rest on the Boardwalk, but the portion of the wheel furthest east would be about 13 feet into the right-of-way and about 50 feet in the air. Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville presented the request to the Mayor and Council on Monday.
“The main question is if you approve of relocating the Big Wheel slightly east so the Ferris wheel could be visible down the Boardwalk, especially at night,” he said. “The question is the overhang on the public right-of-way on the Boardwalk. It’s not a problem back at Somerset Street, but by the time you get to the pier building and the shark, it’s no longer visible.”
The code allows an encroachment on the Boardwalk in certain limited cases of four feet. Comparisons were drawn to the overhang on the pier building that appears to encroach over the Boardwalk. City Engineer Terry McGean said from an engineering perspective, the proposal to move the Big Wheel met some sections of the code, but not others.
“It meets the vertical code, but it does not meet the overhang,” he said. “The pier building does overhang 14 feet, but it is in the franchise area and not in the right-of-way.”
As for why the request is only from April to July, Neville explained the Big Wheel operator typically moves the attraction to various state fairs around the region in August, but that didn’t happen this year because of the pandemic.
“The operator has a contractual obligation with a couple of state fairs outside of the state,” he said. “Because of COVID, those state fairs were cancelled, which is why it stayed here all summer.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight raised concern about the potential precedent set by allowing the encroachment over the Boardwalk.
“I have a concern if we allow this at 13 feet, we’re setting a dangerous precedent,” she said. “I’m comfortable with the four feet. I just don’t know how you would explain this to other businesses.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said he believed that precedent has already been set. He asked involved staff if they were recommending approving the request.
“Isn’t there already a precedent?” he said. “I thought we already had some encroachments. I sense a reluctance from Terry to approve this. Does engineering and planning and zoning recommend this?”
McGean said he didn’t feel too strongly about it one way or the other.
“As far as the first question, I’m not aware of any other current encroachments,” he said. “As to your second question, I don’t object to it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.”
For his part, Neville said he thought the request represented an opportunity for both Trimper’s and the town.
“What Trimper’s has done is to present this as a dual effort with the town,” he said. “I think it would promote the downtown area and I think there is an economic development benefit. For those reasons, I would recommend it. It’s a trial basis for next year, so the risk is manageable.”
Trimper’s Rides President Antoinette Bruno said moving the attraction slightly to the east might be the only way to ensure it returns next year. She also said may visitors were drawn to the Big Wheel from afar, but ended up at Jolly Roger’s Ferris wheel on the pier when they got closer because they could no longer see the Big Wheel.
“We’re trying to keep the Big Wheel here,” she said. “The problem is, people can see it from far distances, but when they get down the Boardwalk, they end up on the pier and the other Ferris wheel because they can’t see it. There was just a lot of confusion.”
Bruno also said with distancing requirements and other COVID-related directives in place this summer, there simply wasn’t a lot of foot traffic on the south end of the Boardwalk. Foot traffic typically jams up in the area of the pier building on peak summer nights, and with COVID concerns, many visitors were turning around when they hit that point.
“With all of the COVID requirements, foot traffic essentially stopped at the pier,” she said. “As you know, there was no tram. Nothing brought people further down the Boardwalk. This would help with economic development downtown.”
Bruno said the top priority is bringing the Big Wheel back next year for another summer, or at least part of a summer.
“It’s been a hard summer for everyone, and we are concerned COVID is not going to go away,” she said. “The Big Wheel is an advertisement to drive people downtown, but also to drive people to Ocean City. It’s a temporary structure and the No. 1 goal is to get the wheel to stay in Ocean City.”
Knight said she had concerns the request was more about private business competition than economic development.
“The problem I’m hearing is the wheel on the pier has a competitive advantage,” she said. “I would have a problem with the city getting involved and interfering in private business.”
To Knight’s earlier point, Councilman John Gehrig also raised concern about the potential precedent set by allowing the encroachment.
“It’s going to be here for four months, but we’re going to have to deal with this precedent for years to come,” he said. “I like the wheel, but I don’t think we should be involved in private business. I don’t have any problem with you moving it the four feet.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said he wanted City Solicitor Heather Stansbury to review the request from a legal standpoint and Risk Manager Eric Lagstrom to also take a look at it from a liability standpoint. While the council did not outright dismiss the concept, they wanted more clarification on some issues. For that reason, Martin suggested bringing it back at a future work session.
“I’d like to defer this and bring it back after Heather has had a chance to review it,” he said. “I just don’t see the votes tonight to approve it right now.”
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed with the precedent side of the issue.
“I think it’s an amazing attraction, but I do have some concerns,” he said. “Essentially, it’s a sign. Every business at every street end is going to want to put their sign over the right-of-way. That’s essentially what we have here.”
It’s important to note the ride’s gondolas are enclosed with little to no possibility of riders being able to drop objects on Boardwalk pedestrians below. However, Dare said he wanted another set of eyes on the proposal.
“I would also like to hear from our risk manager,” he said. “An object dropped from 50 feet is going to hit the ground at 38 mph. Even a quarter falling out and hitting somebody at nearly 40 mph is going to leave a mark.”