Planners Debate Residential, Commercial Growth

OCEAN CITY – Resort planners this week renewed the debate about how much residential growth should be allowed in the town’s dwindling commercially-zoned areas.

During a spirited public hearing last month, the Ocean City Planning Commission heard from residents and property owners on both sides of the residential versus commercial growth in the town.

Of course, the roughly 10-mile barrier island is nearing buildout, although there have been substantial redevelopment projects in recent years with more in the planning pipeline.

The town’s code is explicit on what types of projects can be developed in the various zoning distinctions throughout the town, but short of strict enforcement of the code, there have often been condominium projects developed in commercial zones.

The ideal redevelopment includes mixed-use projects that include some residential and some commercial, or retail or service, amenities, and that has been true in many recent redevelopment projects.

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However, with residential projects increasingly encroaching on commercially-zone properties, the planning commission is considering an amendment to the code that would restrict some residential development and preserve the commercially-zoned properties.

It has been said at the planning commission level, and at different levels in city government, that the increased encroachment on commercially-zoned properties is forcing residents and visitors to leave the island to find retail outlets and other services.

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville provided an overview of the planning commission’s public hearing from last month.

“My takeaway from reviewing the transcript is the majority of the speakers believed the proposed change was large enough to affect a lot of properties,” he said. “The other thing I though was a benefit was the notion to allow the planning commission to continue to have site plan approval authority.”

Neville outlined the intent of the proposed code changes regarding residential development in the commercial zones. He said the intent was not to hamstring a property owner on what they can develop on their property, but rather to find a balance.

“Our role to have a successful town is to have a variety of uses,” he said. “That’s a really good thing. The conversation we want to have is what tools do we use to achieve that. We don’t want to hamstring property owners. Are we just talking about large properties? How much commercial is ideal for the growth of the town.”

Planning Commission chair Pam Buckley said parking issues would continue to dictate the town’s growth patterns.

“It’s the parking that is the issue,” she said. “There is also the issue of people buying in commercial zones and not realizing it’s commercial. Maybe we can continue along those lines.”

Commissioner Maryellen Rosenblit said finding a balance for a livable, walkable community should be the goal.
“I’m very happy in my residential neighborhood at 14th Street I can walk to CVS if I need to,” she said. “I think everybody desires the same thing. I don’t always have to get in the car and drive across the highway.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis said there were inherent risks to buying and redeveloping a property, but that was not under the purview of the commission.

“When you have an idea for a property, you spend money and you risk money,” he said. “That’s part of being a developer. When we do projects that are entirely residential, we lose to opportunity to walk where we want and get what we need. The problem is on-street parking for the residents.”

Gillis said the commission should be cognizant of retaining as much commercially-zone property as possible while reviewing proposed projects.

“If the whole island is built out, and I don’t agree with that, we should be sending up the red flag and sounding the alarm to save commercial zoning,” he said. “That’s our job. Mixed-use is a good thing. You can make a nice livable, walkable community by doing that. Look at Sunset Island.”

Gillis said the planning commission has to be cognizant of the citizens it represents when making zoning decisions.

“Our job is to protect the taxpayers and the citizens,” he said. “We are not up here to protect developers. I’m okay with sending this to the Mayor and Council, because it is ultimately their decision.”

He continued, “We don’t want the remainder of the island all residential. That’s the 3% that’s left. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to plop down 100 townhouses on a parcel.”

After considerable debate, the commission voted 5-1 with member Joel Brous opposed and members Joe Wilson and Lauren Taylor absent to forward the recommendations to the Mayor and Council for a future public hearing.

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.