Resort Planners Debate Occupancy Code Amendment

OCEAN CITY – Maintaining the sanctity of the resort’s R-1 single-family residential neighborhoods was the subject of an informal discussion by the Planning Commission this week.

The Planning Commission this week had a discussion on a handful of code amendments that will be coming up for public hearing. The particular amendments up for discussion on Tuesday were tandem parking, as it relates to valet parking. There are a few significant redevelopment projects potentially on the horizon in the resort that will likely be seeking approval for tandem, or valet, parking.

Other code amendments ripe for public hearings are the farmers market and the definition of non-accessory uses. However, the proposed code amendment that got the most discussion was a revised definition of a family as it relates to rental properties in the R-1, or single-family home district.

It’s certainly not a new issue. About three years ago, city officials debated creating an R-1A district that would have essentially banned short-term rentals in the traditional single-family home neighborhoods, but the idea got little traction.

Recently, with the proliferation of online short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO, for example, the problem with large groups of unrelated people renting a property in an otherwise quiet, year-round neighborhood has grown more acute. The code defines what constitutes a family and how many unrelated people may rent and stay in a short-term rental, and the proposed amendment would better define that.

Currently, the town’s code defines a family as it pertains to a short-term rental as not more than four related adults, or not more than four unrelated persons living together by joint agreement. The town’s Fire Marshal’s Office has its own standards in terms of a definition of a family.

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville explained both his office and the Fire Marshal’s Office are responsible for enforcing different sections of the code as it relates to occupancy issues. In addition, the police department enforces issues such as noise and parking, for example, for short-term rentals in the R-1 district. Neville said the current code does not exactly jibe with the Fire Marshal’s definition, and the proposed code amendment would correct that.

“Right now, when we enforce occupancy, the code says four unrelated adults,” he said. “Our thought was to fix that and coordinate our code with the Fire Marshal’s standards.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley, who has long championed tightening the occupancy restrictions in the R-1 single-family home district, related a story from personal experience on the issue. Buckley said with the proliferation of online rental platforms, they weren’t always limiting the number of people who can stay in a rental in the R-1 district.

“The problem we had last year in Hidden Harbour is two adults would show up with a 20-person cheerleading team,” she said.

That led to a discussion of the code as it related to unrelated adults renting in the R-1 district and the number of children allowed by code. Planning Commission Attorney Maureen Howarth said she would check what the Fire Marshal’s regulations said.

“We can see what the fire code says,” she said. “I don’t think they count children in the calculation.”

Buckley was adamant the code amendment was needed because more and more groups of multiple families were flooding short-term rentals in the R-1 district.

“This is about maintaining the R-1 district,” she said. “They can show up with six or seven cars out there and there are 14 people. We’re not going to have an R-1 district if we don’t maintain the integrity of it.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis agreed, pointing out the traditional R-1 single-family home district makes up such a small portion of the barrier island and should be preserved.

“There are little enclaves of single family homes,” he said. “It’s maybe 5% of the island.”

Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson pointed out the traditional short-term rental companies are supposed to regulate how many people are supposed to be in a unit.

“Rental companies are required to maintain a list of everybody that is supposed to be staying in the unit,” he said.

Neville said the exact number of visitors in a short-term rental could be adjusted in the code amendment depending on the results of an upcoming public hearing.

“When we go out, the Fire Marshal maintains no more than four unrelated persons,” he said. “For us, we’re willing to go to six unrelated persons. It gives them more flexibility.”

Buckley said the issue is the short-term rentals and not seasonal rentals.

She said if one was a neighbor of a seasonal rental, he or she would get to know the neighbors and talk to them over the fence.

“The short-term rentals are the issue,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with the seasonal rentals because you get to know who they are and there is accountability.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

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.