Planning Commission Approves Employee Housing Conversion

OCEAN CITY – It took a little creative thinking, but resort planners last week figured out a way to give conditional approval to repurpose a downtown amusement facility for employee housing.

The Ocean City Planning Commission last week had before them a request to convert what has historically been an amusement facility at Worcester Street to seasonal workforce housing for as many as 78 seasonal workers. The facility has most recently been Selfie Fantasy, but in the past hosted a haunted house.

While all embraced the concept, the change of use came with challenges. The property is zoned B-1, or business district, and in order to convert it to workforce housing, the planning commission had to figure out a way to define the project. It could be considered workforce housing, which would require onsite parking, or it could be considered a rooming house, which would get around the parking non-conformity issues.

After considerable debate, the planning commission decided it could be a hybrid of the two classifications, and approved the conversion with conditions imposed. Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville explained the challenges for the planning commission.

“This has been a complicated review,” he said. “It’s a hybrid project. The only two permitted uses are employee housing or a rooming house. If it’s not on the list, you can’t consider it. Is it employee housing or a rooming house? They came up with a hybrid. It includes a large area and sleeping areas divided by a wall system that does not go up to the ceiling.”

The planning commission was less than keen on the sleeping areas divided by walls that did not go up to the ceiling for safety and privacy reasons, but that issue was later resolved when the developer agreed to find a way to make the dividers go to the ceiling and create private living spaces. Neville explained permitting the workforce housing without walls that went to the ceiling could open a can of worms the town might not want to open.

“If the change of use is employee housing, we have to resolve the onsite parking issue,” he said. “We could do a code amendment. It opens the barn door to a field without fences. There is not a guarantee of a private room. If we open that possibility up, it could become the new standard. Is that what we want in Ocean City?”

Neville said the tenants would be sleeping in bunk beds in essentially what would be cubicles under the plan presented.

“It would have bunk beds and the top bunk could see into the adjacent space,” he said. “There would not be a degree of privacy. Today, I don’t think you can consider it employee housing. It would have to be a rooming house.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said there had to be a way to make it work because the site was desirable for employee housing.

“If there was ever a spot for it, this would be a good spot,” she said. “We’ve tried so many uses for that space. That’s a great area with a need for housing. This is a good spot. There are plenty of jobs within walking distance.”

Developer Harry How said there were opportunities for floor-to-ceiling walls on the first floor, but the second floor had challenges.

“The first floor has tall ceilings,” he said. “On the second floor, we can’t do that because there is not enough height.”

Buckley said the health and welfare of the employees was paramount, but the commission had to consider the overall community.

“You mentioned the health and welfare of these young people,” he said. “That’s our responsibility too, the health and welfare of our community. We all want and need more employee housing. We just need to figure out where we go from here.”

Anne Marie Conestabile of United Work and Travel said her organization could supply the employees. The planning commission desired a single tenant for the property with all of the tenants working for the same local business. Conestabile said that was her organization’s desire as well.

“If I take sponsorship of the building, I will have one floor for boys and one floor for girls,” she said. “I would never mix genders.”

Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson agreed the project made sense and urged his colleagues to find a way to approve it.

“There is no doubt this is a perfect location for this project,” he said. “There is no doubt we need the seasonal housing. We just need to figure out how to make it work.”

How said if the commission could find a way to approve the project for this season with conditions, the commission could consider a code amendment that would formalize the agreement in the future.

“If we can get approval for this season, we can put restrictions on this year,” he said. “Then, we can let a proposed code amendment run its course.”

Because the project would not fit easily into the existing code, Wilson said the commission would likely have to get around the on-site issue.

“Employee housing would have to get around the on-site issue,” he said. “Is there a way to put that in an approval motion? That’s the question. It’s hard to come up with a solid solution.”

Buckley said there was a way to approve it if that was the commission’s desire. She asked Conestabile if she could secure a single employer as the tenant and fill the space.

“We can condition site plan approval on using it for workforce housing and come back with a lease agreement from one employer,” she said. “The employer would have to be in Ocean City. Could you get 78 employees from one local business with a fully-executed lease?”

Neville said he would be comfortable if that plan was achieved.

“That’s the only way I’d feel comfortable,” he said. “Until we work on this zoning amendment, that would make me feel more comfortable in allowing these kids to stay here. I just don’t know any other way.”

Neville said there was a precedent with the Ropewalk uptown providing employee housing that was not connected to the property.

“If this was the first time we tried this, I’d feel less comfortable,” he said. “We do have the Ropewalk situation, so there is a precedent. I’m not comfortable with workforce housing in cubicles. It’s the privacy. It’s the shared air space. I can’t recommend that. We’ll see developers trying this all over the place.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis said the project met a demand if the details could be worked out.

“It is what it is,” he said. “We have a labor problem here and we have to solve it. They’re used to this in Europe. We’re in Ocean City where housing is short. This is the best we can do with what we have to work with. It hasn’t gotten any better in the last 12 months.”

Gillis said there was a solution on the table if the commission wanted to embrace it.

“What I’m hearing is, we’ve found a way to shoehorn this in legislatively,” he said. “I don’t think anyone questions the desire, the demand or the need. It sounds like we’re having a moral dilemma even if we can make this work.”

Wilson said if there was a practical solution, the commission should figure it out.

“This would be a great fit,” he said. “I think it would be a great spot for employee housing. I think we need one person to put all of the employees in there.”

In the end, the commission approved the site plan for the project with conditions attached. Among the conditions were the walls separating the living spaces needed to go the ceiling, a single employer would have to lease the property and place his or her employees only in the space, windows that have been boarded over for the property’s other uses would have to be opened, and an onsite manager of the employee housing would have to be at least 30 years old.

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.