OCEAN CITY – Resort officials this week sent a proposed code amendment that could create more opportunities for seasonal workforce housing projects back to the Ocean City Planning Commission for further review.
Over the last few months, the planning commission has been working on a series of proposed code amendments that could facilitate pending development projects. The framework for one of those proposed code amendments that could alter the sections of the code dealing with employee housing facilities came before the Mayor and Council during Tuesday’s work session.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville laid out the key elements of the proposed code amendment, which would make approval for new employee housing projects tied to a conditional use.
“What you have here is a code amendment for employee housing as an accessory use,” he said. “Employee housing by definition can only be an accessory. It needs to be on-site or in the building. What’s important to point out is we’ve seen several solutions proposed, so the intent here is to amend the code to increase opportunities for employee housing as a conditional use.”
Neville explained the planning commission was forwarding a recommendation to amend the code to reflect employee housing-accessory use as a conditional use.
He said it could be addressed as a permitted use at the site plan approval level, or a special use heard and approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), but the recommendation was for the conditional use because of the additional oversight for projects it provides.
“Of these three choices, the conditional use is the most reasonable,” he said. “It provides for a public hearing, so neighbors in an area where an employee housing project is proposed have an opportunity to weigh in with concerns. It also provides a mechanism for the Mayor and Council to review and approve projects.”
Neville said the planning commission’s recommendation included a variety of amendments to the code’s sections on housing. For example, it addresses occupancy, bulk and density issues. It also provides a definition for the amount of acceptable living space, or common areas, per occupancy. For example, the proposed changes call for a minimum of 250 square feet of livability space per every six occupants.
“It really provides more opportunities for employee housing in Ocean City,” he said. “This is just a first step. It would open the possibility for more employee housing.”
Councilman Peter Buas questioned if going the conditional use route was the right approach. He said projects might have difficulty getting funding if the lender was concerned about a change in the use of a given property in the future.
“A conditional use by its very nature can be revoked,” he said. “We’re talking about building structures. I’m not sure a lender would be interested in providing financing for a project if there is a chance the conditional use could be revoked in the future.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he believed the conditional use was the right approach, however.
“I think the conditional use is the way to go,” he said. “Essentially, it would be a permanent conditional use. The only way it could be revoked is if there was a violation or a problem. It would have to come before the Mayor and Council.”
Meehan said he supported the concept, but still had some questions with the code amendment as proposed.
“Things change over time,” he said. “We might be challenged with this in the future, but we have an immediate problem and we’re trying to find a solution. When we make a change down the road, that’s a concern I have. I support trying to do this, but I just want to get it right.”
Buas said with so many questions left unanswered, it could be appropriate to send the proposed code amendment back to the planning commission for further review.
“We can give them some direction, but I’m not sure we’re ready to vote on this,” he said. “They haven’t had much direction on this issue for years.”
Meehan agreed the code amendment as proposed could use a little more polish, but said there is some urgency to get something on the books to address the employee housing shortage.
“We all agree it’s an immediate problem,” he said. “We have to look at today, tomorrow and down the road. In the future, we might find we have an abundance of employee housing. It all needs to be on the table.”
Council Secretary Tony DeLuca first made a motion to have staff draft an ordinance affecting the code amendment to prepare for a first reading.
However, after considerable debate, DeLuca changed his motion to remand the proposed code amendment back to the planning commission for further review and a recommendation.
That motion was approved unanimously by the council.