Rift Appears To Grow Between Planners, Council

OCEAN CITY – The upcoming joint meeting between the Mayor and Council and the Ocean City Planning Commission apparently can’t come soon enough as the rift between the two bodies on certain issues appears to be widening.

For the last several months, the planning commission has been reviewing and holding requisite public hearings on maybe a dozen proposed code amendments. After the proper protocols are followed, the planning commission typically sends a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council for further discussion and a vote one way or the other. It’s been a standard practice for years.

How the process works is, the planning commission gets a recommendation from the staff on a proposed code change needed to address a specific issue. 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 fact and transcripts are forwarded to the Mayor and Council along with a recommendation.

It’s important to note the elected officials are not beholden to follow the recommendation of the planning commission and make up their own minds on a specific issue or code change. More often than not, the council tends to follow the recommendation of the commission, but lately there have been more than a few occasions when the Mayor and Council went the other way.

For example, last week the Mayor and Council had before them recommendations from the planning commission for two proposed 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.

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However, before the staff could present the two proposed code amendments, the council voted to simply remove them from that meeting’s agenda and did not have any discussion on them, effectively killing the two proposed code amendments with no public discussion.

During a gap between scheduled items on their agenda on Wednesday, some on the planning commission informally discussed last week’s non-action from the Mayor and Council on their recommendations on proposed code amendments. Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis brought up the issue.

“Isn’t it our realm of responsibility to provide recommendations?” he said. “We follow the proper protocols to send a recommendation to the Mayor and Council on these proposed code amendments.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said the commission’s recommendations come after careful vetting and public hearings.

“We’ve been sending things up for years, not that it matters,” she said. “Planning and Zoning has had the capability and the responsibility to ask for and present a public hearing for zoning and ordinance changes.”

Gillis said the commission carefully follows protocol and recommendations are not made in a vacuum. He said it was time for a joint session between the two bodies. For the record, a joint session between the Mayor and Council and the planning commission has been set for Sept. 27.

“My question from a planning and zoning member is, we’ve been asking for a joint session with the Mayor and Council for years,” he said. “We follow the process legally, we hold the public hearings, we do all of these other things according to protocol.”

Gillis said a lot of time and expense goes into reviewing proposed code changes, holding public hearings and making recommendations.

“My question is with all of the taxpayer expense and all of the staff time, we have tens of thousands of dollars in expense and time into these things,” he said. “We’re doing all of this in full view of the community.”

Gillis referenced a full list of potential code changes the commission has been working on for months and that there should be no surprises for the council.

“They’ve had the full list since earlier this year,” he said. “It’s not like we’ve been secretive. We’ve been asked to be conscious of taxpayer dollars. We’ve brought a dozen items. Is it a hell yeah, or a maybe, or a hell no? It seems a little disingenuous to me.”

Buckley questioned the council’s decision to simply strike the two proposed code amendments from the agenda last week without some discussion in the public forum.

“My issue with it is the public has a right to hear the discussion on what we’ve done,” she said. “What disturbed me is that there was no effort to inform the public. The public does not always get to a zoning meeting or access our minutes because it’s not publicized as much in the papers and different things. When they make a vote or say something, it gets a little more press time.”

Buckley said simply striking the two items from the agenda last week was ill-advised.

“I feel like we have a job here, and they appointed us, to check the public health, safety and welfare,” she said. “The public still needs to hear the discussion at the council level. I think they’re being short-sighted and remiss in that.”

It’s important to note the council often does carefully review proposed code amendment recommendations from the planning commission. Just this week, the council carefully vetted a proposed conditional use allowing an axe-throwing venue at a downtown shopping center and the relocation of a downtown miniature golf course based on recommendations from the commission.

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.