Mayor, Council At Odds Over Planning Commission Roles

Mayor, Council At Odds Over Planning Commission Roles
File Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – For the third time in a couple of months, the mayor this week appeared to be at odds with some on the council over the role of the town’s planning commission on certain issues and steps in the approval process.

The Mayor and Council had before them on Tuesday recommendations to approve two code amendments. One would modify pyramidal zoning, or zoning in which different mixed-uses would be allowed in certain zoning districts. The second would address garage parking for multi-family residential areas. As it stands, many garages in multi-family communities are used for purposes other than parking, resulting in residents parking more on the street and impacting the neighborhoods.

Important issues to be sure, and the planning commission forwarded favorable recommendations for the passage of both. How the process works is, the planning commission gets a recommendation from staff on proposed code change. After vetting the issue, the planning commission, as the hearing body for the Mayor and Council, holds the requisite public hearing. After the public hearing, the findings of facts and the transcripts are forwarded to the Mayor and Council along with a recommendation.

Again, the council had before them on Tuesday the two recommended code amendments, but before planning staff could present them, Councilman Peter Buas made a motion to strike them from the agenda.

“I know the record here is very thorough with the transcript,” he said. “Just to streamline this, not a single person showed up to comment on either of these code amendments. I make a motion to reject item E on the agenda at this time.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said while the planning commission’s public hearing on the proposed code amendment was lightly attended, the transcripts and the findings of fact related to that public hearing should be presented to the Mayor and Council whether there was a will of the majority to pass it or not.

“Whether or not I agree with the final recommendation or not, I think to just dismiss arbitrarily the work of the planning commission is short-sighted,” he said. “Yes, the Mayor and Council has had an opportunity to review that, but I think it’s important that the public knows what the Mayor and Council will be voting on and to have that presentation before it gets to us. I just think it’s the proper process to follow.”

Meehan pointed to an apparent rift growing between the council and the planning commission on some issues, including a series of code amendments such as the two on the agenda on Tuesday. The two bodies are scheduled to hold a joint meeting to discuss various issues later this month.

For Meehan, his strong objection to rejecting the planning commission’s code amendment recommendations even before they were presented on Tuesday follows a recent trend. In August, the mayor vetoed a positive council vote on a proposed code amendment recommended by the planning commission that would have allowed stacked parking with a valet system for certain larger projects where site limitations make finding the requisite number of parking spaces needed a challenge.

Meehan’s veto of that code change ordinance was based largely on the elimination of certain language related to the planning commission’s role in the approval process for the stacked parking system.

The council would need six votes to override the mayor’s veto, which hasn’t been discussed publicly. The ordinance veto issue is tentatively scheduled for the next council meeting. Meehan said on Tuesday whether or not the majority of the council approved the proposed code amendments, he objected to them being dismissed outright.

“I realize some people here have different feelings about the planning commission and its role,” he said. “There’s a lot of good information in here and whether you agree or don’t agree with the recommendation, it should be discussed for the benefit of the public. There are some interesting things in here that also depict what the responsibility of the planning commission is even if you don’t go to a conditional use as recommended for residential uses in the LC-1. I think just to dismiss the planning commission’s public hearing and giving the public the ability to see what was discussed is short-sighted.”

Meehan said despite the often lightly attended meetings at the planning commission level, and even at the Mayor and Council level to some degree, many citizens are following the issues closely in various other ways.

“I think a lot of people follow the council meetings and the detailed press reports so they know where the councilmembers stand on different topics,” he said. “I just think we’re short-circuiting the process. Some of these topics have been lingering for a long time.”

Meehan said the planning commission holding the requisite public hearings on proposed code amendments and other issues was a defined responsibility for the commission.

“It is the responsibility of the planning commission to review the zoning code and how it pertains to the comprehensive plan,” he said. “Holding a public hearing is their responsibility, as is making a recommendation. Whether the council chooses to accept it or vote it down is up to the council, but I think the planning commission was following the process they should be following.”

With that said, the council voted 6-0 with Councilman Gehrig absent to reject item E related to a code amendment allowing pyramidal zoning in certain zoning districts. Their attention then turned to item F on Tuesday’s agenda, which included a proposed code amendment recommended by the planning commission related to garages and off-street parking in certain multi-family neighborhoods. Again, Buas made a motion to reject the agenda item before a presentation was made by staff, citing the same reasons as his prior motion.

Again, Meehan objected to the motion to reject the agenda item without a presentation from staff for the benefit of the public.

“For the same reasons, I object to not allowing this presentation to be made,” he said. “There are some things in here about parking that I think are very important. Again, I’m not saying I totally agree with the recommendation, but I see some issues in here that are worth a discussion.”

The council then voted 6-0 to reject the agenda item related to garage parking in the multi-family communities. Buas then asked for a discussion about a potential change in the process, including a Mayor and Council review before the planning commission holds a public hearing on a particular issue.

“In the future, if the planning commission is going to discuss a proposed code amendment that was not discussed at strategic planning, I would recommend the chair pen a letter making any kind of recommendation to the Mayor and Council before calling a public hearing to get the council’s temperature on an issue,” he said. “I would highly recommend that.”

Meehan voiced his displeasure with that recommendation.

“Again, I would object to that,” he said. “That is just automatically the Mayor and Council making a decision before hearing from the public.”

Meehan related a story from decades ago when the Downtown Association was formed. At the time, there were three councilmembers serving on the committee and the Downtown Associations discussions and ideas were often shirt-circuited by the presence of the elected officials on the panel, he said.

“The problem we had was every time somebody brought up something they wanted discussed or looked into, one of the councilmembers that served on the committee would say, ‘we’ve already discussed that and we’re not going to do it.’ It took a while to get beyond that. That’s what I don’t want to see happen between the planning commission and the Mayor and Council.”

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.