OCEAN CITY – The proposed Margaritaville project inched closer to becoming a reality this week with resort officials accepting the findings of fact from the Planning Commission despite some misgivings about the square footage required for a planned overlay district.
The Mayor and Council had before them on Monday a revised and updated findings of fact from the planning commission for the planned overlay district (POD) for the proposed Margaritaville Hotel and Conference Center, which would encompass an entire city block downtown on the oceanside facing the Boardwalk between 13th and 14th streets. In March, the council approved two key elements for the project, including approval of the POD, essentially a zoning map amendment to allow for the proposed redevelopment of the entire block.
The council also agreed to convey the rights to the air space over Washington Lane to allow the Boardwalk-side elements to connect to the other elements on the Baltimore Avenue side. Washington Lane is essentially an alley that bisects the proposed project’s properties, and conveying the air rights over the alley is essential to the project.
After a marathon hearing in November, the planning commission forwarded a favorable recommendation for the requested POD for the Margaritaville project to the Mayor and Council with a list of 13 conditions of approval attached. When the Mayor and Council reviewed the planning commission’s recommendation in March, the elected officials added four more conditions for approval, bringing the list to 17.
On Monday, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville presented an updated version of the findings of fact reflecting the conditions the Mayor and Council added for the project. The council ultimately voted 5-0 to approve the updated findings of fact with Council President Matt James and Councilman Peter Buas absent.
“This is an item that you’ve seen before,” said Neville. “On March 21, you accepted the recommendation from the planning commission regarding the planned overlay district for the Margaritaville property. At that time, you had findings of fact from the planning commission level and recommended conditions. The council approved additional conditions.”
Neville said the approval of the updated findings of fact was a necessary next step in bringing the Margaritaville project to fruition.
“Tonight, before you is an updated version of the findings of fact and the staff recommends you adopt this updated findings of fact so that you’re ready for the next step in the process, which is the reading of the ordinance for the planned overlay district,” he said. “It will be a multi-step process.”
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 center space, retail stores facing the Boardwalk and many other upscale amenities.
The project would replace the old Phillips Beach Plaza property along with associated parcels within the full city block. With the air rights over Washington Lane issue resolved in March, and the POD request accepted at the same time, the next step was approving the amended findings of fact and moving forward with approval of an ordinance codifying the POD.
Again, the council approved the amended findings of fact with additional conditions included as a matter of course. However, during the public comment period of Monday’s meeting, which came long after the council approved the findings of fact, an attorney representing a neighboring hotel pointed out the planning commission’s recommended findings of fact included an important omission. A POD approval calls for a minimum of 90,000 square feet of land space and the project’s parcels will likely meet that minimum threshold. However, Attorney Adam Russo pointed out at the present, the proposed parcels for the Margaritaville project do not meet that standard as presented.
“The condition I want to bring to your attention is the findings of fact do not cover probably the most important issue that they needed to do,” he said. “The request for a planned overlay district is 90,000 square feet. The way this was presented to the planning commission overlooked the fact that the property is actually only 85,000 square feet. By the letter of the law, there is not currently sufficient land space to accommodate at planned overlay district.”
Russo said the apparent shortage of minimum space for the POD approval presented a conundrum for the council. The presumption is the developer will have the required 90,000 square feet by the time the POD ordinance comes up for approval, but is not quite there yet in the findings of fact presented and ultimately approved on Monday.
“This creates something of a procedural problem,” he said. “The next thing that is going to happen is the reading of an ordinance for the approval of the planned overlay district. In some sense, it’s creating a procedural land mine because the parcels currently do not add up to the 90,000 square feet. It’s not in the findings of fact. It’s only listed as a condition in the findings of fact.”
Again, the POD provides flexibility for the developer to create an aesthetically-pleasing project. In the case of the Margaritaville project, that means easing some of the setback requirements in order to allow the rooms and amenities to be spread over the entire property. For example, the proposed design has some elements of the project just 15 feet from the Boardwalk, but the restaurants, outdoor pools and pool decks and other amenities are gradually tiered-back toward the highest tower of rooms in the center of the property. Meehan pointed out the relatively close proximity of some of the elements to the Boardwalk and said the sacred standard for many years has been 32 feet.
Before the Mayor and Council took on the larger POD application issue in March, there was a public hearing on the proposed conveyance of air rights over the portion of Washington Lane that bisects the property. Last summer, Attorney Hugh Cropper III, who represents project developer NOSC, LLC, presented a conceptual plan for the town to essentially abandon that portion of the alley and convey it to the project developer.
Under the new proposal, that 16-foot wide portion of Washington Lane that bisects the Margaritaville property would remain a public right of way and the developer would make significant improvements to it. For example, the existing 16-foot-wide alley would be widened to 23 feet, allowing for two vehicles to safely pass through that section of Washington Lane.
In addition, five-foot wide sidewalks would be added on either side of the alley, along with a dedicated three-foot-wide bicycle path. Because of the changes, the portion of Washington lane that bisects the Margaritaville property would have to be realigned by about nine feet, so it would align with the sections of the alley to the north and south.
In order to accomplish all of those changes, the developer was seeking the rights to the air space over the public right of way. The air space would be at least 14 feet above the roadway, or a height prescribed by the fire marshal’s office. Cropper explained the air rights are needed in order to connect the elements of the project on either side of the alley.