Recommendation For Margaritaville’s Planned Overlay District Advances To Council

Recommendation For Margaritaville’s Planned Overlay District Advances To Council
A rendering shows the proposed Margaritaville Hotel and Resort complex from the Boardwalk. Image courtesy of Becker Morgan Group

OCEAN CITY – Despite some reservations about the changing downtown landscape, resort planners this week voted to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council for a planned overlay district for the proposed Margaritaville project.

The off-again, on-again Margaritaville project, if approved, would encompass virtually an entire city block downtown on the oceanside facing the Boardwalk between 13th and 14th streets. On Tuesday, the project took two steps closer to becoming a reality with the Mayor and Council in the afternoon voting to move the air rights request over Washington Lane, which bisects the massive property, to a future public hearing.

On Tuesday evening, the planning commission voted to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council on the application for a planned overlay district (POD) needed to accomplish the project.

The proposed project over 12 different lots would include 265 hotel rooms and three restaurants, including the JWB Grill with high-end steaks and seafood, the Landshark Bar and Grill and a coffee shop and provisions store in the lobby. The project would also include three outdoor pools and one indoor pool, a wellness center and gym, 14,000 square feet of flexible convention space, retail stores facing the Boardwalk and many other upscale amenities.

By way of a timeline for the proposed project, last August the planning commission reviewed conceptual plans for the proposed Margaritaville Hotel and Resort. And in November, the planning commission hosted a spirited public hearing on the proposed POD.

However, in December, the developer, NOSC, LLC, withdrew the request and pulled back the application for the POD in order to tweak the plans and address some of the concerns raised by the commission at the public hearing level. Earlier this month, the developer returned with a revised application for the POD. Among the changes proffered by the developer was the project would be under single ownership. The initial proposal called for a condominium regime form of ownership with the retail elements of the project.

The developer has also engaged a consultant to develop enhanced landscapes in the setback areas. The developer is also working to pursue workforce housing opportunities within walking distance of the vast property. Another issue to resolve is the conveyance of the alley that bisects the property from north to south. The existing 16-foot alley bisects the property and the developer originally requested the town abandon that portion of Washington Lane in order to build a consolidated project on the properties.

However, the developer is now requesting air rights over the alley, which would allow for the consolidation of elements of the project while the town retains ownership of it. The developer has proffered to widen the alley to 23 feet and make the appropriate improvements. That issue was before the Mayor and Council on Tuesday afternoon and the elected officials voted unanimously to move it to a future public hearing.

The lynchpin for the project, however, is the approval of the POD for the site. Again, the planning commission reviewed the proposed changes earlier this month, but withheld any decision on a favorable or unfavorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council at that time until staff could organize the proposed changes and the notes from that presentation.

On Tuesday evening, the commission got a brief review of the organized version of the notes and recommendations and the proposed conditions placed on approval by the staff. After some debate, the planning commission voted to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council on the POD application for the properties. Pam Buckley, planning commission chair, acknowledged the decision would not be popular with all stakeholders.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “I do feel we have worked and tried to come up with the best plan for this site. There are some people that are very happy about it, and some others not so happy about it and I understand that.”

Buckley drew from long experience on the commission to rationalize the decision to forward a favorable recommendation on the requested POD for the property.

“This is my 33rd year up here and we’ve done a lot of nays and yeas on projects over the years,” she said. “It’s always difficult when you see a big change. The Cambria Hotel was one, South Beach was one, the Gateway Grand was one and the Princess Royale was one. We’ve seen a lot of different projects and the city has changed. The only thing we can hang our hat on is the Mayor and Council, who have been elected to their offices, get to put their say on it.”

The abbreviated commission ultimately voted 4-0 to forward a favorable recommendation. Buckley and Planning Commissioners Joe Wilson and Palmer Gillis voted in favor. Recently appointed Planning Commissioner Maryellen Rosenblit participated in the presentation, but did not vote because she had not been involved in prior deliberations. Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor initially did not vote on the motion, citing concerns about the changing downtown landscape.

“I just want to echo some of the things Pam said,” she said. “I’ve been here since I was a baby and I spent my high school and college years working between 2nd and 3rd streets. Change is really hard for me because of the doubts I have for downtown and the sense of place that Ocean City has. This structure is the Phillips Beach Plaza put on top of the Commander. Now, it is set back, but it erases a lot of sight lines for a lot of people.”

Taylor voiced other concerns about traffic in the area, but eventually changed her mind and voted yes on the motion to forward the POD request to the Mayor and Council, asserting there would be ample time to address some of her concerns at site plan review and other steps in the process.

“I also have concerns about the traffic issues going up toward the 15th Street intersection,” she said. “There are two lanes going north and one lane going south, and a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing already. When the site plan comes back, I’d like to see a plan that makes that work because it almost doesn’t work now and if you add more cars to it, it’s going to be a real problem. I’m going to vote yes to move it forward and allow the Mayor and Council to make a decision.”

For his part, Gillis said the developer and his staff made a strong case for the redevelopment of the property at different stages of the approval process.

“I’d like to commend the applicants,” he said. “Having served on the Salisbury and Wicomico planning commissions, that was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. It was very thorough, and I tip my hat to the applicant for such a great presentation.”

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.