OCEAN CITY — The huge Big Wheel Ferris wheel that returned to the downtown landscape late last week will be coming down next week after it was determined it was encroaching on the public Boardwalk.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council gave Trimper’s Rides, who partnered with Wood Entertainment to bring the giant Ferris wheel to the historic amusement part for a 40-day stint that began last week, a tight window to rectify a zoning violation caused by the attraction’s roughly 10-foot encroachment over the Boardwalk. The Mayor and Council gave Trimper’s one day to come back with a solution and late Tuesday afternoon, Trimper’s officials came to City Hall and informed City Manager Doug Miller they had little recourse but to remove the Big Wheel altogether.
The dismantling of the Big Wheel is expected to start on Monday, a process that could take several days. It will then be packed up and taken away. Miller said Trimper’s officials had little recourse but to totally remove the Big Wheel as reconfiguring its location would result in dismantling or moving other attractions in the park. The Ferris wheel’s encroachment over the Boardwalk triggered a zoning violation and the company has been fined since it was erected and will continue to be until the zoning violation is corrected.
Last year, during the height of the pandemic, historic Trimper’s Rides partnered with Wood Entertainment to bring the Big Wheel, a massive Ferris wheel with brilliant LED lights and 36 enclosed gondolas that reaches 150 into the sky to the iconic amusement part at the foot of the Boardwalk. The Big Wheel immediately changed the downtown landscape and was visible from much of Ocean City, West Ocean City and Assateague and drew visitors to the downtown area.
The reason the popular Big Wheel was even available last summer for Trimper’s and Ocean City was because of COVID restrictions on state fairs and other festivals around the country, to which the massive Ferris wheel typically makes the rounds. In October, Trimper’s officials told the Mayor and Council they desired to bring the Big Wheel back this summer for a 40-day stint in midsummer, but they desired to move it to the east closer to the Boardwalk, so it would be easily visible to vacationers as they got closer to the end of the famous promenade.
While the Big Wheel was clearly visible from all over the resort, as vacationers got closer to the end of the Boardwalk, it’s views were obscured by taller buildings and there was evidently some confusion between the new attraction and the other tall Ferris wheel on the pier at Jolly Roger’s, which has been a fixture on the downtown landscape for decades.
In October, Trimper’s came before the Mayor and Council seeking permission to site the Big Wheel closer to the Boardwalk to make it more visible from the south end of the Boardwalk. While the attraction’s footprint would rest easily within the historic amusement park’s property, the massive wheel and its gondolas would encroach over the Boardwalk and above the masses walking below.
There are sections in the town’s zoning code that allow businesses to encroach on the town’s right-of-way. For example, some business’s signs or awnings extend beyond the private property lines by as much as four feet. While generally pleased to hear the Big Wheel wanted to return to Ocean City this summer, the Mayor and Council in October were somewhat lukewarm on the attraction’s planned encroachment over the south end of the Boardwalk and, after considerable debate, tabled the approval in order to consult with legal staff and risk management.
Fast forward to late last week and the Big Wheel suddenly emerged on the south end of the Boardwalk in its new location slightly further east with its gondolas towering over the public right-of-way by a little over 10 feet. Again, while few would argue the Big Wheel is a major attraction for Trimper’s and the south end of the Boardwalk, not all were comfortable with its encroachment on the public right-of-way, which apparently runs afoul of the town’s code.
After the discussion in October, the Mayor and Council never revisited the issue and it was not placed back on a future agenda for further discussion. On Monday, Trimper’s Rides President Antoinette Bruno told the Mayor and Council the assumption after the October meeting was that the four-foot allowance discussed at that time was acceptable and that the Big Wheel’s new position fell just short of that. In reality, the Big Wheel’s encroachment over the Boardwalk right-of-way is over 10 feet.
Bruno said on Monday Trimper’s and Wood Entertainment sought to have the issue placed on an agenda over the past several months to no avail. She said surveys of the site along with Wood Entertainment’s desire to bring three other rides to Ocean City in order to make the trip profitable for the 40-day stint made the Big Wheel’s current position the only plausible one from an economic standpoint. Mayor Rick Meehan attempted to halt the “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” attempt.
“Let’s not change what the issue is,” he said. “We think it’s a great attraction and a great ride. The issue is where it’s located.”
Bruno said it was challenging wiggling the Big Wheel into the park’s footprint along with Wood Entertainment’s other attractions it was bringing to the resort this summer. She essentially acknowledged the placement of the attraction ran afoul of the town’s code.
“We did our best to put the wheel up correctly,” she said. “It wasn’t an easy feat. The parking lot is not level and the ride is not square, it’s round. It’s not easy to measure and there are a lot of irregular angles. I think we made an error on some of the measurements.”
When the issue was first broached in October, some on the council raised concern about safety with the ride’s gondolas over the masses walking below on the Boardwalk. Wood Entertainment’s Michael Wood attempted to dismiss those concerns on Monday. Wood also essentially admitted the attraction’s placement encroached on the public right-of-way.
“I can assure you we took every precaution with safety,” he said. “The state of Maryland, which is among the best in the country, did a very good job with the inspection. I take responsibility for the location of the ride. We might have made a mistake in the calculations.”
Meehan pointed to a similar situation in 1986 when Trimper’s installed a new roller coaster at the park, the platform of which was found to extend over the public right-of-way on Baltimore Avenue. Ironically at that time, park patriarch Granville Trimper was the City Council President, but the council made the amusement park cut down the overhang.
“In 1986, the Tidal Wave was overhanging the street by 10 feet,” he said. “The council at that time made them cut it off by 10 feet. This is like déjà vu. I think this could set a precedent. You put all of us in an uncomfortable position. This is an enforcement issue and it puts the town in a very difficult position.”
Councilman John Gehrig on Monday said he understood the plight, but raised concern about setting a dangerous precedent that could allow other Boardwalk businesses to encroach on the public right-of-way.
“We talk about precedents all the time,” he said. “If we don’t enforce our rules, is everybody else going to do it?”
For her part, Bruno said the Big Wheel was already achieving the desired goal of getting people to walk to the end of the Boardwalk and support the businesses and other attractions on the south end. She said last year, because of COVID and the trams not running, many visitors did not venture south of the pier.
“People are walking the whole length of the Boardwalk,” she said. “We had 10,000 people in the park over the weekend. It has literally changed the makeup of the Boardwalk. We told him to be within that four feet. We realize we made a mistake.”
Gehrig said no one disputes what the Trimper family means to the south end of the Boardwalk, but the Big Wheel’s encroachment needed to be resolved.
“We’re here to try to solve this,” he said. “We respect what you’re doing down there. It wasn’t approved, and we have to enforce our rules. This isn’t us versus you. This is us and you trying to resolve this. How can we get this wheel back to where it meets the code?”
Councilman Mark Paddack said culpability wasn’t the issue.
“You’ve owned up to it,” he said. “We’re in a tough position. It puts me in a tough spot because I want to collaborate with all of our businesses.”
For his part, Wood essentially said what has been done has been done and pointed to the attraction’s relatively short stint in Ocean City this year.
“We’re talking about a 40-day stint,” he said. “If it come back, I guarantee it won’t be one millimeter over.”
Bruno explained it would cost $37,000 to deconstruct the Big Wheel and another $37,000 for reconstruct it in an area slightly further to the west. In addition, moving it now would come at the cost of moving, or eliminating together, one of the other attractions in the park. She estimated the total cost of a do-over at around $100,000. However, City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said economic issues were not relative to enforcing the town’s code and setting potentially dangerous precedents.
“It can be moved with some economic hardship,” she said. “Economic hardship is never a condition for a variance. I think we’re at a standstill. I think the will of the council is to have it moved.”
Gehrig agreed and said there was little recourse but to reconfigure the attraction’s siting.
“It’s your call on how to fix it,” he said. “We love what you’re doing down there, but the code applies to everyone. We’re not picking on you, but 10 feet is a gigantic mistake. I don’t want to be punitive, but we want you to fix it.”
Councilman Peter Buas took a stronger stance, saying the economic ramifications of moving the Big Wheel at this point was secondary to sticking to the town’s code regarding right-of-way encroachments.
“I can appreciate the economic hardship argument, but you can’t make that argument retroactively,” he said. “I don’t believe for a second this was a mistake at all. There can be no doubt if you’re seven to 10 feet over, that is a massive mistake.”
Buas also dismissed the notion the amusement park and the subcontractor expected permission for at least the four-foot encroachment after that first meeting in October.
“You can’t say you thought you had that four feet when it was abundantly clear in that meeting you weren’t given permission for even that four feet,” he said. “What happened is, you assumed you’d get permission for the four feet and now you’ve put us in a terrible position where we have to address a fantastic attraction downtown. One of the most important jobs we have is the predictability of our ordinances and that’s a terrible problem to be in.”
When questioned about the different sections in the town code about right-of-way encroachments on the Boardwalk such as signs and awnings, for example, Stansbury said there was some leeway, but the Big Wheel’s encroachment went beyond that.
“The town tries, sometimes at its own peril, to work with business owners,” she said. “When this came up in October, an idea, and frankly a very ambitious one, was for the town to consider this as an overhang or awning. That was an extremely generous way for the town to look at it. We weren’t comfortable looking at it with that very generous lens.”
After considerable debate, the Mayor and Council told Trimper’s and Wood Entertainment to come back with a plan almost immediately to move the Big Wheel, even at the cost of eliminating one of the other attractions, in order to meet the code.
“The bottom line is, come back with a plan on how to fix this tomorrow,” said Meehan. “Time is of the essence.”