Margaritaville Moves Ahead After Three OC Council Approvals

Margaritaville Moves Ahead After Three OC Council Approvals
A rendering of the Margaritaville project is pictured as it would be seen from Baltimore Avenue in Ocean City. Rendering by Becker Morgan Group

OCEAN CITY — After much debate, resort officials this week approved three separate proposals inching the Margaritaville project closer to fruition.

The Mayor and Council on Monday had before them one request from the Margaritaville developer to convey a portion of the Baltimore Avenue corridor to them in order to meet the minimum lot-size requirements for a planned overlay district (POD). The council also reviewed the conveyance of air rights over a city-owned alley, and another that would allow for a comprehensive parking management system, or valet service, allowing tandem, or stacked, parking in order to meet the minimum number of spaces required.

After considerable debate, the council approved all three requests. The proposed project over 12 different lots would include 265 hotel rooms, three restaurants, bars, 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.

Right-of-Way Conveyance

The first issue on the agenda for the project dealt with the conveyance of a portion of the Baltimore Avenue corridor to accommodate the project. The town is in the process of redeveloping the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division to 15th streets, including undergrounding the utilities, widening the sidewalks and landscaping the corridor. Baltimore Avenue is somewhat unique in a variety of ways.

For example, the original deeds show the right-of-way as 75-feet wide, but the current roadway only utilizes about 45 feet from curb to curb. As a result, there is a no man’s land of about 32 feet in some areas that will ultimately be deeded back to the property owners along the corridor when the Baltimore Avenue project is completed.

The proposed planned overlay district (POD) for the Margaritaville project requires at least 90,000 square-feet of property, and the project developers needed the portion of the Baltimore Avenue corridor between 13th and 14th streets conveyed back to the property owner now to move the project forward.

City Manager Terry McGean said he and the staff had no reservations about conveying that portion of the Baltimore Avenue to the Margaritaville developers now to keep the project moving forward.

“We, as a staff, are comfortable in initiating the process to convey that part of the right-of-way to Margaritaville,” he said. “The next step would be to move to a public hearing. Should you choose not to do this at this time, we’re still working on the other properties. Margaritaville cannot proceed to site plan approval without the conveyance of this right-of-way.”

City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said the conveyance of the right-of-way was the next step in moving the project forward to site plan approval by the planning commission.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this,” she said. “They wouldn’t be ready to go to site plan approval for quite some time. This entire project will not be ready for site plan approval in 30 days.”

However, Council President Matt James said he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the piecemeal approach to conveying the abandoned right-of-way to the property owners to placate the Margaritaville project.

“This is likely the largest piece of property we will be giving away on Baltimore Avenue,” he said. “My concern is I don’t think we should be doing this property by property. We continue to bend over backward for this project.”

McGean explained the process and how it could further delay the project. For example, the conveyance of the property would require an advertised notice to the property owners along the corridor and a public hearing, all of which could take months to accomplish.

“If the conveyance of the property is in August, it would be the end of the year before they were ready for site plan approval,” he said.

Councilman Mark Paddack said he was comfortable with conveying the abandoned right-of-way to the Margaritaville developers and made a motion to honor the request, a motion seconded by Councilman Peter Buas.

“To delay this project is to deny it,” he said. “We have discussed this project for over a year on multiple occasions. I disagree with the council president. We need to work with them. Something has to happen in this process. I don’t think we need to do every single property in one hearing.”

McGean said in his dealings with Delmarva Power about undergrounding the utilities along the corridor, he had no reservations about conveying the portion of right-of-way to the project developers.

“In this case, we feel very confident with where we are with Delmarva Power,” he said. “The idea was to do it sooner rather than later with moving forward with the conveyance.”

The council ultimately voted 4-1 with James opposed and Councilmen John Gehrig and Tony DeLuca absent to approve the conveyance of the right-of-way to Margaritaville to allow the project to meet its 90,000 square-feet needed for the POD.

Air Rights Ordinance Approved

The next step involving the Margaritaville project on Monday was a second reading of an ordinance that would convey the air rights over a 17-foot-wide public easement over a portion of Washington Lane to allow for the connection of different elements of the project. Under the proposal, the portion of Washington Lane that bisects the Margaritaville project would remain a public right-of-way and the developer would make significant improvements to it. For example, the alley would be widened to 23 feet, allowing for two vehicles to safely pass.

In addition, five-foot wide sidewalks would be added on either side of the alley, along with a dedicated three-foot-wide bicycle path. In exchange for the improvements, the town would convey the air rights over the alley, allowing the developer to connect the different elements of the project.

The council approved the ordinance affecting the change on first reading last month and it appeared to be headed to passage on second reading on Monday. However, local attorney Pete Cosby, representing various other property owners in the area, had an opportunity to speak in opposition to the ordinance before a vote was taken.

“This is a special law passed for a specific applicant,” he said. “It’s a dangerous precedent. If you had a whole class of Margaritaville projects, it would be one thing. The underlying purpose here is for their benefit. They couldn’t pull this project off without it. They couldn’t call it one building without it.”

Cosby said like the right-of-way conveyance, the air rights over the alley ordinance was another example of accommodating a specific project.

“We’re bending over backwards and passing an ordinance each week to accommodate this specific project,” he said. “How is the public need being served with this? I want to see Margaritaville here as much as the next person, but the density is out of control. Let’s make them develop a smaller project with this property.”

The council voted 4-1, with James opposed and Gehrig and DeLuca absent, to approve the air rights ordinance on second reading.

Stacked Parking Ordinance

The Mayor and Council on Monday had before them an ordinance for first reading allowing for tandem, or stacked, parking with a valet system for some major downtown redevelopment projects. Last month, the council approved the proposed code amendment after receiving a favorable recommendation from the planning commission.

In simplest terms, if a redevelopment project for a hotel complex or a commercial use in the downtown area could not meet it’s minimum parking space requirements on-site, tandem parking, or spaces in which vehicles are stacked one behind the other, could be utilized as long as a comprehensive parking management plan, or valet service, for example, was in place. 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.

Ostensibly, the code amendment, if approved, would apply to any significant redevelopment project that can’t meet the parking requirements on-site, but the proposed amendment is somewhat specific to major projects already in the planning pipeline, including the Margaritaville project.

As he did when the council first discussed the proposed code amendment last month, Buas said he still had reservations about the process by which a “comprehensive parking system,” would be approved. The approval would be part of the planning commission’s purview during site plan review for a project, but Buas said there was no clear definition of what a comprehensive parking management system was.

“My concern is this gives them no parameters at all,” he said. “We’re basically giving them an entirely new section of the code without any guidance.”

Paddack said he believed the ordinance as written did give direction to the planning commission and they were capable of using their discretion when approving a comprehensive parking system.

“I don’t think we should pick and choose when to apply this ordinance,” he said. “We want the planning commission to have those discussions.”

Meehan said there is not likely a one-size-fits-all approach to the process.

“I don’t think everything is exactly the same,” he said. “I think this could be valuable tool. I do think there can be a case-by-case decision. It should be subject to planning commission review and approval.”

Again, Cosby echoed some of his earlier sentiments from the discussion of the air rights ordinance.

“You’re passing again a tailored ordinance specific to this project,” he said. “It doesn’t have any public benefit. Without applying this as a general law, you’re going to have legal problems.

Meehan said he agreed in part with Cosby on some issues, but disagreed with the assertion the ordinance before the council was specific to the Margaritaville project.

“I agree somewhat with your comments about the density of this project and the impact on the neighborhood,” he said. “I disagree with your assessment of this ordinance as site-specific. Margaritaville is not even mentioned in the ordinance. I think it meets the test.

With that said, the council voted 4-1 with James opposed and Gehrig and DeLuca absent to approve the ordinance on first reading.

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.