Resort Prepared For Pop-Up Rally if It Returns; OC Police Chief Says ‘We Never Want To Let Our Guard Down’

Resort Prepared For Pop-Up Rally if It Returns; OC Police Chief Says ‘We Never Want To Let Our Guard Down’
Baltimore Avenue is pictured during the pop-up rally last September when many police officers were assaulted. Photo by Campos Media

OCEAN CITY — It remains to be seen if the annual September pop-up motorized event materializes next weekend, but resort officials are prepared nonetheless.

For several years, a motorized special event formerly known as H2Oi popped up each late September in the resort, often with disturbing results. While the formal H2Oi even has long since moved out of the resort area to Atlantic City and other locations, the annual September pop-up motor vehicle event has continued to be a troublesome weekend in the resort although the annual rally has been tamer in recent years. Last year, arrests, citations issued and tows were down considerably from the prior year, suggesting possibly the annual pop-up rally has begun to run its course in Ocean City.

However, despite the considerable drop-off in the lawless behavior associated with the event last year, town officials, the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and its allied law enforcement partners are preparing as if the event is returning next week. With the Oceans Calling music festival set for the last weekend in September, the conventional thinking is the pop-up car rally participants will be coming next weekend if at all.

OCPD officials said this week the social media intelligence shows the pop-up rally participants have organized events in New Jersey and North Carolina next weekend, but indications are a large number could make Ocean City a stopping point. After a particularly troublesome event four years ago, the Town of Ocean City formed a motor vehicle special event task force to begin exploring ways to curb some of the behavior associated with the event.

The task force reconvened last Friday to outline plans for a possible return next weekend. The plans include the implementation of the special event zone beginning next Tuesday, Sept. 20 and running through Sunday, Sept. 25. The special event zone will include lower speed limits, altered traffic patterns at times and a strong police presence including a fully-staffed OCPD and its allied partners including the Maryland State Police, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies from around the state.

At the outset of last Friday’s motor vehicle special event task force meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan reflected on where the task force began and how far it has come.

“When you look back, it’s impressive what we’ve accomplished in a few short years,” he said. “All of this came out of what we experienced in 2015 and 2016. It took a couple of years to make some significant progress.”

Meehan said the first significant step in the process was getting the special event zone legislation with lower speed limits and enhanced penalties for certain offenses pushed through the General Assembly. The mayor said while Ocean City was on the cutting edge with special event zone legislation, other jurisdictions experiencing similar problems with certain special events are starting to follow suit.

“We got the special event zone legislation pushed through and then we amended it,” he said. “It took some convincing at first. Now, we’re seeing some other jurisdictions around the state facing the same issues and they are following our lead.”

State Senator Mary Beth Carozza (R-38), who represents Ocean City and Worcester County, agreed.

“Here we are five years later,” she said. “We met with a lot of resistance for our own local courtesy bill and now other jurisdictions around the state are trying to copy what we’ve been able to accomplish. I ask you to consider continuing this strong relationship.”

OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro promised the same level of law enforcement, police presence and intensity as in recent years, including last year when arrests, citations and tows all diminished significantly during the September pop-up event.

“We never want to let our guard down,” he said. “I feel like we’ve made tremendous progress. It’s important that we continue to do the same things we have been doing. I want to maintain the same level of police presence and enforcement because we’ve come a long way and continue to accomplish our goals.”

While much of the task force meeting focused on the unsanctioned pop-up event, the fall Endless Summer Cruisin event was also discussed. The spring and fall Cruisin events often draw the same type of hangers-on and unregistered participants as the other motorized special events, but they are generally tamer.

In recent years, Cruisin event promoters have been actively involved in the task force and have created different events to keep participants off the streets in the resort including satellite locations, concerts and other attractions. TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel, which produces the spring and fall classic car events, said the plan is in place for the fall event in October to continue to do the same things. He said last year was an indication of the success of some of the alternative activities.

“Everything went well from our side,” he said. “We have over 2,000 already registered and we will be at our average of 2,300 to 2,400. We have events in Berlin and Snow Hill because we want to keep the cars moving around. We’re trying to put heads in beds earlier in the week.”

Of course, Ocean City in the fall is subjected to coastal storms and the associated flooding in the downtown area. Rothermel said last year’s fall event was curtailed somewhat by downtown flooding, but there were contingency plans in place in the event of a repeat. He said just last week there was flooding in the downtown area despite the lack of a storm or major rainfall event

“We noticed the flooding on St. Louis Avenue this morning,” he said. “We’re looking at what we can do if we have flooding problems downtown. We do have a plan in place. We’ve been part of this since this task force began.”

Buzzuro said for his department’s part, the fall Cruisin events create far fewer problems than the unsanctioned pop-up event.

“The last several years we’ve had great events,” he said. “We’ve had no significant problems with the fall Cruisin event.”

With the motorized special event season underway, there is always an in-kind number of participants and spectators gathering in the parking lots of resort businesses closed at night, often with alarming results. As a result, the OCPD two years ago created the Trespass Enforcement Authorization Program, or TEAP, which allows the department and its allied partners to go on private property when a business is closed to enforce laws and regulations. Meehan said during the task force meeting last week the program has grown significantly since its inception.

“We went from around 170 just a few years ago to over 300 now,” he said. “It’s a very important program. It’s a great partnership with our community.”

For his part, Buzzuro said despite some of the uncertainties surrounding the expected pop-up event last week, his department and its allies will be well prepared.

“Things are looking favorable,” he said. “Our high-visibility efforts are paying off. Last year, we saw a significant difference. We’re seeing a tremendous drop-off from what we saw in 2019 and 2020. It looks promising.”

Buzzuro said the OCPD and its partners have everything in place for whatever the expected pop-up rally brings next week.

“There has been a great deal of preparation,” he said. “There are a ton of things done to get where we are. We’re going to have a good number of law enforcement personnel out on the streets. It really comes down to safety. Everyone is welcome, but there is an expectation that everyone follows the rules. We’re optimistic we’re going to have a good outcome.”

The trickle-down from the annual motorized special events falls on those who prosecute the countless arrests, citations and other violations. Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser said during last week’s task force meeting her office is well prepared to address whatever the events bring.

“We’re hopeful for a good motor veh0icle event season,” she said. “We’re ready to handle whatever comes our way.”

In recent years in anticipation of the annual September pop-up rally, the town has taken a stance to caution other visitors to stay away. With a decline in the event last year, Meehan said it could be time to welcome those visitors back.

“Hopefully, we can bring back folks that decided to stay away on that weekend over the years,” he said. “It truly is a beautiful time of year in Ocean City.”

Buzzuro cautioned against believing the annual September pop-up car rally was completely in the rear-view mirror.

“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “We are cautiously optimistic. I think we’re going to see another year where we see a decline in a lot of these things. All we can promise is to give you another 110%.”

Buzzuro said the enhanced towing ordinance and the number of tow companies on hand for the pop-up rally anticipated next week will be in place.

“We are staged for towing,” he said. “Last year, tows dropped off about 50% from 2020. I’d like to see it drop off even more.”

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.