OC Planners Talk Code Amendments

OCEAN CITY – Resort planners this week continued informal discussions on a variety of proposed code amendments, from the amount of living space required in seasonal workforce housing to off-street parking requirements for new development projects.

Over the last several months, the Ocean City Planning Commission has been discussing various proposed code amendments to address a variety of issues. The process begins with the planning commission reviewing staff recommendations and holding requisite public hearings.

The planning commission then makes a recommendation to the Mayor and Council, which, in turn, may or may not adopt an ordinance to affect the code changes. During Tuesday’s meeting, the planning commission held informal discussions on half a dozen or so of the proposed code amendments that are in various stages of the process.

In some cases, the commission has already hosted the required public hearings and are ready to make recommendations to the Mayor and Council. Others are still in the discussion stage with planning commission members still debating the merits of the proposed code changes.

On Tuesday, one of the topics of discussion was the amount of open living and dining spaces in seasonal workforce housing projects. It’s no secret the town is experiencing a lack of affordable seasonal workforce housing and there are several projects proposed to address the issue.

There are already sections in the code that address the appropriate amount of living and dining space required per unit in a workforce housing project, or common areas where the tenants can eat, read, work on a computer or just gather as friends as part of a quality of life issue. The proposed code amendment discussed by the planning commission would update those sections to ensure there is an appropriate amount of open space in new workforce housing projects, according to Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville.

“The idea is the combined living and dining space should increase proportionately as the number of employees in the building increases,” he said. “I’ve tried a number of different solutions to confirm these incremental increases in living space. At this point, my recommendation is until we have a good solution to that, if we delete that section, this would take the supplemental regulation back more than a decade without a specific criterion to use. To me, what that does is transfer the responsibility back to the planning commission when you are reviewing a site plan.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said there are creative ways to maximize the number of beds in a workforce housing project while still ensuring quality of life with the appropriate amount of open space.

“There are so many things to do,” she said. “What if they have a big park in the middle of the building? Maybe they wouldn’t need that much interior space.”

Neville said there might not be a one-size-fits-all solution and the language in the code amendment should allow the planning commission to review each project on its own merits.

“I think we need to look at this as every project is a little bit different with the size and the number of people,” he said. “I’m not sure how we would incorporate all of those factors into one set of criteria.”

Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor said geography could be a factor in a decision on the amount of living space required in workforce housing projects.

“It depends on what part of the town it is also,” she said. “Downtown, there is a lot of exterior space for people to go and meet and just be.”

Taylor said the language in the proposed code amendment needed to be tightened up.

“The wording has to be project-specific,” she said. “There might be some language like that. ‘Increase proportionately’ is kind of amorphous. It should be something that’s site-specific to the location and the building so there’s some way to tie it into something and it’s not just random.”

Neville said the intent of the proposed code amendment is to ensure the planning commission is cognizant of the need for open living space when considering plans for workforce housing projects. It did not need to be as precise as to require a specific amount of square footage required for open space, but rather a broader test for the planners to consider.

“There has got to be a way to do it, so we can put a test on it,” he said. “If there is a way to do it so it’s a test, but not a specific criterion, that would be ideal.”

Another topic discussed on Tuesday was a proposed code amendment that would address off-street parking requirements for new multi-family or townhouse development projects. Over the last few months, the issue has been raised at the commission level about the appropriate amount of off-street parking required for new development projects.

The issue raises concerns about the lack of sufficient off-street parking, or parking for units that is contained on the property. In some cases, a lack of sufficient off-street parking has led to parking on the streets. In other cases, a multi-family dwelling or townhouse project might have two car garage spaces per unit, but one of the spaces ultimately becomes a storage area filled with lawn equipment, beach chairs and the like, necessitating more parking on the town’s public streets. Neville explained how the proposed code amendment could address that.

“Which you may recognize in the discussion topics is the idea that garage parking should only partially count for the parking requirement,” he said. “This includes what we think is a better proposal. Rather than saying that you can’t have garage parking, we basically felt that for multi-family dwellings and townhouses, this says if two or more spaces are required, a minimum of two spaces shall be open and unenclosed.”

Neville said the intent was to address the issue with the required minimum two unenclosed parking spaces per unit, but cautioned about making it too specific.

“We felt that concept would allow for a range of solutions,” he said. “It could be surface parking, it could be a parking lot and it could be underneath a building. By trying to do the simplest possible change, it allows for a variety of conditions.”

Neville said a different approach would be to have a rigid standard that would force developers and architects to alter plans for projects to meet the parking requirements.

“We could go more restrictive and say one space in a garage can count for required off-street parking,” he said. “One of the reasons we thought that might not work is it will create something the architects design to. If only one parking garage space counts, we would see the next project come in with just one parking garage space.”

Taylor said if the required unenclosed parking spaces were placed under a building supported by concrete pillars, she would like to see the parking spaces screened somehow.

“I like to see them screened,” she said. “If they’re totally on piers, three sides can be screened with lattice or something, so you don’t really realize it’s a garage. It looks so industrial when it’s just concrete piers and pillars. It looks like an office and it doesn’t look beachy or resort-y.”

Planning Commissioner Joel Brous said he was concerned the proposed code amendment regarding open, unenclosed parking spaces might be a little too restrictive.

“I just don’t want to penalize someone who wants to build a two-car garage and put their two cars in there,” he said. “You’re kind of penalizing them when they can’t do that.”

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.