OCEAN CITY – The long-awaited joint meeting between the Mayor and Council and the Planning Commission this week was by and large a productive one, but it appears there is still a rift bubbling under the surface between the two bodies.
The Mayor and Council and the Planning Commission met in a joint meeting at City Hall on Tuesday. The aggressive agenda included a definition of the roles and responsibilities of the planning commission, an agenda item that on the surface appeared to be the nuts and bolts for the forum, but there was little discussion on that item at least at the outset of the meeting.
The joint meeting them delved into topics such as the upcoming upgrade of the town’s comprehensive plan, employee and seasonal workforce housing issues, sign code compliance and building heights for example. During his opening remarks, Mayor Rick Meehan set the stage for what turned out to be a productive meeting.
“I think this is going to be a very important meeting,” he said. “Thank you for serving. It’s essential to have people volunteer for our boards and commissions and you do a terrific job. I know it’s not always easy. We’re not always going to agree with your recommendations, but you do a great job of presenting all of the information to us.”
Longtime Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said at the outset of the meeting the commission and the council have always worked together to improve the resort community.
“I’ve been serving for 34 years and we’ve seen many changes, including the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “Ocean City has grown into a wonderful community. The planning commissioners spend a lot of time reviewing plans and code amendments and zoning changes. Let’s see what we can work through to make this an even better community.”
At the conclusion of the opening remarks, the two bodies delved into the specific agenda items. It wasn’t until the end of the meeting when an issue from last month resurfaced. In August, the Mayor and Council had before them recommendations from the planning commission to approve two code amendments, both of which were deleted from the council’s agenda with no discussion.
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. Another code amendment that would have allowed for tandem, or stacked, parking for large-scale development projects in order to meet parking requirements was passed by the council, but then vetoed by the mayor. The council ultimately did not override the mayor’s veto.
Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the two bodies decided the forum was productive and a second should be scheduled. City Solicitor Heather Stansbury suggested picking up where Tuesday’s planned agenda left off, including further discussion of the recommended code amendments that were rejected by the council and remanded back to the planning commission. Councilman John Gehrig agreed the meeting was productive in terms of addressing some of the specific agenda items, but said he came in believing it was going to be more of a broader discussion about the relationship between the council and the commission.
“I guess I was just confused,” he said. “I thought we were having conversations about expectations and roles. I thought this was going to be more of a ‘what do you want from us’ conversation. I came in thinking this was going to be a heart-to-heart.”
Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis then took up the issue of the rejected code amendments. 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. Gillis voiced his concern the recommended code amendments last month were simply removed from the council’s regular agenda with no discussion, a point he has made during other meetings.
“The ultimate goal here is to improve our community,” he said. “To reject something out of hand that took hours and hours and staff time seems short-sighted. We do that out in full view with public input. If you don’t want us to do it, give us the courtesy to tell us not to do it instead of wasting our time. You all just rejected it. You didn’t even discuss it.”
Buckley also raised some concern about the council simply rejecting the recommended code amendments out of hand with no discussion. The code amendments were sent back to the planning commission, but there was no direction provided by the council, she said.
“You didn’t give us any indication why you rejected them,” she said. “You can reject them, but then you still have the issue out there. You still have the issue in the code. It’s not going anywhere.”
Gillis agreed that Tuesday’s meeting was productive and was in favor of holding a second forum, but said the commission’s primary responsibility was to identify flaws in the existing code and make recommendations to the elected officials, who ultimately hold sway.
“Obviously, there is mutual respect at the table,” he said. “We give you recommendations for a reason because we see flaws in the code. At the bare minimum, your constituents need to hear them. I take exception to that. We have issues we need to deal with.”
After some debate, it was decided there would be a second joint meeting including an open and broad discussion about the roles of the commission. The second meeting’s agenda would also include items that were on Tuesday’s agenda but were not addressed. For example, Item 4-A includes the pyramidal zoning code amendment, Item 4-B would address nonconformity, and Item 4-C would address the garage and tandem parking code amendment. While there is clearly a willingness to address some of the agenda items not reached on Tuesday, some on the council had reservations about reviewing the proposed code amendments the council had already rejected, including the recommended pyramidal zoning code amendment.
“I’d be fine talking about 4-C,” said Council President Matt James. “Item A was on the council agenda, and I got a lot of negative feedback from property owners. The general thought was it was too late to make these changes and that if this was going to be done, it should have been done years ago.”