OCEAN CITY — After considerable debate, resort officials this week approved a proposed code amendment allowing for tandem, or stacked parking, with a valet system for some major downtown redevelopment projects including the proposed Margaritaville project.
The Mayor and Council reviewed the changes Monday after the town’s planning commission in April held a public hearing on the proposed code amendment and forwarded a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council.
In simplest terms, if a redevelopment project for a hotel complex or a commercial use in the downtown area could not meet its minimum parking space requirements on-site, tandem parking, or spaces in which vehicles are stacked on behind the other, could be utilized to meet the minimum requirements as long as a comprehensive parking management system, or valet service, for example, was provided. In other words, if a project required 100 parking spaces according to the code, 20% of them could be tandem, or stacked, spaces to meet the minimum requirement.
The code amendment is somewhat specific to major projects already in the planning pipeline, including the Margaritaville project. The proposed project over 12 different lots would include 265 hotel rooms, 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.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville explained the proposed code amendment recommended by the planning commission.
“This would allow tandem or stacked parking for commercial uses,” he said. “In this case, we felt it was important to put this forward with the staff recommending the code amendment. It is somewhat project-specific, but it could lead to more redevelopment in the downtown area.”
Specifically, the code amendment as presented reads, “In the downtown and upper downtown design overlay district, and subject to the planning commission approval, 20% of the required parking for a hotel, motel or a commercial-use property that requires 100 or more parking spaces may satisfy the on-site or off-site parking requirement by using tandem or stacked parking,” the proposed amendment read. “The tandem parking spaces must be reserved for a specific use and managed by a comprehensive parking management system, with no more than one vehicle stacked behind another. The second space in the stack are the spaces that shall be counted toward the 20% limitation.”
Most on the council had heartburn with the lack of a clear definition of a “comprehensive parking management system.” Basically, it means a dedicated valet system managing the spaces earmarked for tandem parking, but the code amendment as presented did not make that clear, according to Councilman Peter Buas.
“I’m a little concerned about the language regarding a comprehensive parking management system,” he said. “I think we need to narrowly tailor the criteria for the planning commission.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed.
“We don’t have a clear idea of what a comprehensive parking management system is,” he said. “Is this a process where we’re going to be learning along the way? I think it’s important to have criteria for the planning commission at site plan review.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said the comprehensive parking management system wasn’t clearly defined in the code amendment as presented, but said the planning commission would have discretion to review the proposed plan at the site plan approval level.
“A comprehensive parking management plan isn’t clearly defined,” he said. “The planning commission should have the ability to think outside the box. It’s not unusual to see stacked or tandem parking all over Ocean City, especially on private property.”
Paddack made a motion to forward the ordinance as written to first-reading, a motion seconded by Councilman Lloyd Martin. Councilman John Gehrig said he wanted the language in the amendment to reflect a dedicated valet system not run willy-nilly by other staff at a commercial property.
“I have a much bigger problem with comprehensive parking management plan,” he said. “I’m fine with the definition. I just think it needs to be a dedicated position, not a general manager that runs out there and valets, or a chef that goes out and valets. How many valets do they need? I’m not ready to vote on this until some of these things are defined.”
Gehrig said the code amendment before the council on Monday contemplated a dedicated valet service for the major projects with parking deficits, but some other type of comprehensive parking management system could be forthcoming in the future.
“The problem is if we need a comprehensive parking management system in the future we can add it,” he said. “What we have in front of us today is valet parking. I don’t want to provide an escape hatch for someone that doesn’t want to hire valets. How do we enforce it? I’m not trying to kill this. When something doesn’t feel right, it’s usually not right.”
Neville responded, “This is an opportunity for the redevelopment of downtown. The planning commission is always looking for the simplest solution. They believe this accomplishes that.”
Paddack pointed out the Margaritaville developers came before the council at an earlier stage of the approval process with a clear plan for how to meet their parking needs, including a noted parking system consultant.
“Margaritaville came in here with a national expert,” he said. “This project is big for economic development for the town. This is what they do. I don’t think we need to micromanage this. We have a planning commission, we have experts, we have architects and we have code enforcement. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and the complaints come in, we can address it. We don’t need to micromanage this all the way down to the person who pulls the keys off the board.”
Gehrig said the proposed code amendment was too big of an issue not to get right the first time.
“We owe it to everyone to provide some sort of guidance,” he said. “If it’s valet, that’s great. If something better comes down the line, we can consider it.”
Council President Matt James questioned why the scope of the proposed code amendment was so narrow.
“Why just downtown?” he said. “There could be other properties in the north end that might be redeveloped soon where this could be applicable.”
Neville said the amendment “only applies to the downtown overlay district. If somebody wanted to do this uptown, there isn’t a mechanism right now to do that.”
There was considerable debate about whether a valet service would have to be required all year long regardless of the season. For example, would valet service be required at Margaritaville in January or February, or just during the peak season. Paddack suggested there could be some occupancy level reached when a comprehensive parking management system, or valet service, would be triggered.
“What if valet service was required at 50% occupancy?” he said. “I don’t know what the number is. How do we define when a comprehensive parking management system should be implemented?”
Gehrig said the goal was to further build the offseason, which is why he wanted clear guidelines in place for the parking system requirements. He raised concern some visitors would avoid the valet parking and park on the city streets.
“Everything we’re doing it trying to put more people in town year-round,” he said. “What this does is put more cars on the streets. We should have some sort of guidelines. We have to have a rule. We have to have some parameters.”
Meehan said what was being considered represented a potentially huge change for the town and each project should be carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis. He urged the council not to remove language related to the planning commission approval, as was suggested at different times during the debate.
“Every site plan and every property configuration are different,” he said. “I just don’t think we should remove the language about subject to the approval of the planning commission. This is a big change. There will be attempts to take advantage of this. There will be times when it is utilized when it does not have to be utilized.”
James reiterated the code amendment as presented appeared to be site-specific to a handful of proposed projects.
“Why is it limited to the downtown and upper downtown areas?” he said. “Why isn’t this applicable town-wide? We should do this right. I don’t think we need to cater this to just a couple of projects.”
City Manager Terry McGean urged the council not to connect any comprehensive parking management system to occupancy levels. He said other commercial businesses in town were required under the code to meet their minimum parking requirements whether it was July 4 or Jan. 4.
“My only concern is this is not tied to some occupancy level,” he said. “It makes it difficult to enforce at the staff level. I don’t want an inspector to go in and check on the number of reservations. If the business is open, they have to have valet service.”
Another issue raised was a comprehensive parking management system tied to approval by the planning commission. Meehan said he believed the planning commission should review and approval plans.
“Is it unreasonable to have a review by the planning commission at site plan approval?” he said. “What this does is just allow it without a review.”
After considerable debate, Buas made a motion to strike the language “subject to the approval of the planning commission,” and reinserting language stating “spaces must be managed by a valet and comprehensive management system sufficient in efficiency and effectiveness as determined by the planning commission.” That motion failed on a 1-6 vote with Buas the lone positive vote.
Paddack then made a motion similar to Buas’ motion, but kept in the language “subject to planning commission approval.” The motion passed 6-1 with Buas opposed.