OCEAN CITY – Yet another potential referendum ballot question for the municipal election, now about one month away, has emerged with a petition to halt the town’s abandonment of a narrow portion of right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue to accommodate the proposed Margaritaville project.
Already on the municipal ballot in November are referendum questions on the proposed dedication of a certain percentage of collected room tax to tourism and marketing and the proposed increase in the Mayor and Council salaries. Now, former councilperson Margaret Pillas has launched an effort to petition for referendum the town’s abandonment and conveyance of a narrow strip of right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue between 13th and 14th streets to accommodate the proposed Margaritaville project’s planned overlay district (POD) requirements.
By way of background, the town in recent years has been planning a major renovation of the Baltimore Avenue corridor between North Division Street and 15th Street, including the undergrounding of utilities, widening sidewalks and streetscaping. Part of that project includes abandoning and conveying a narrow unused portion of the right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue back to the property owners along the corridor.
Deeds platted decades ago show the Baltimore Avenue right-of-way at 75 feet, but the current roadway utilizes just 45 feet from curb to curb, creating a narrow strip of property not needed for the corridor. Over the years, the adjacent property owners have steadily encroached on the no man’s land of sorts with signs, parking, landscaping and driveways, for example.
With the property not needed for the proposed Baltimore Avenue redevelopment project, the town is in the process of abandoning the strip and formally conveying it to the adjacent property owners. The abandoned property will be deeded to the property owners and go back on the town’s tax rolls.
Eventually, all of the property owners along the corridor from North Division Street to 15th Street will have the opportunity to apply for the conveyance of the property, a process that will likely be completed in phases. The proposed Margaritaville project, a resort hotel and convention center with multiple restaurants and 265 hotel rooms over an entire city block between 13th and 14th streets, just happened to be the first to apply for the abandonment and conveyance of the property and the council last month approved the application.
The proposed Margaritaville project requires a planned overlay district and needs 90,000 square feet to qualify for the zoning designation. The abandoned right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue conveyed by the town to the developer helps the project meet the requirements for a POD.
There have been other steps in the process during which the town has accommodated the project, including the granting of air rights over an alley that bisects the property to create a cohesive design for the project. There was also an ordinance that would have allowed for tandem, or stacked, parking with a valet system for the project to allow it to meet its minimum parking standards, but the mayor vetoed the ordinance and the council ultimately did not override the mayor’s veto. The developer has apparently since made other arrangements to meet the minimum parking requirements for the large-scale project.
With the air rights issue and the abandonment of the right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue issue essentially decided, Pillas has launched a petition drive seeking to bring the right-of-way abandonment question to referendum on the municipal election ballot in November. Again, while all of the properties along the Baltimore Avenue corridor slated for redevelopment have the opportunity to apply for the abandonment and conveyance of the narrow strip of right-of-way, Margaritaville is the first and Pillas’ petition drive is an attempt to reverse that.
“This 20-foot conveyance is just the latest concession,” the referendum petition reads. “Earlier, the council allowed the alley within this block to be moved closer to Baltimore Avenue to enhance the project’s architectural design. The City Council also conveyed air rights above this alley providing 720,000 cubic feet of additional bulk-mass allowing for greater density.”
The referendum petition cites the need for additional parking in the downtown area. It also points to the uncertainty of the Baltimore Avenue redevelopment project in general. Resort officials learned last month the project’s estimated overall cost had nearly doubled, along with its timeline.
“Parking is greatly needed for the downtown area,” the petition reads. “The highest and best use for these 16 blocks where the easement allows would also be to provide additional needed parking. Why prematurely abandon this city property when we do not even know when the enhancements to Baltimore Avenue will be done due to the exorbitant cost estimates.”
Resort officials have received the formal petition for referendum from Pillas and her supporters and formally acknowledged receipt. A letter from City Solicitor Heather Stansbury to Pillas acknowledges the petition for referendum has been recorded and outlines the requirements for successfully getting it on the ballot in November. For example, the letter explains in order to get the question on the ballot, the petitioners would need to get 40% of the number of voters during the most recent town election in November 2020 to sign the petition.
With 1,528 voters participating in the last election, 40%, or 612, of the voters would need to sign the petition to get it on the ballot. In addition, the receipt of the petition set in motion a narrow timetable in order to acquire the requisite number of signatures. The town received the petition on Sept. 25, putting the deadline at Thursday, Nov. 3, five days before the election.
Meanwhile, Margaritaville developers are aware of the petition for referendum attempt. In a statement from Kinsley Properties President Tim Kinsley this week, the developers continue to extol the virtues of the major redevelopment project.
“Margaritaville Ocean City will create hundreds of new jobs, including nearly 100 permanent, full-time jobs in the heart of downtown and $50 million in combined tax revenue to Ocean City, Worcester County and the state of Maryland,” the statement reads. “As we emerge from the pandemic, drivable vacations are more and more popular, particularly on the east coast. We have the opportunity to capture more vacationers to Ocean City with the addition of more hotel space, a destination amenity and support for more conventions.”
Kinsley’s statement points to the substantial investment the developers are planning to make in the downtown Ocean City area.
“Meet Margaritaville, Ocean City, a $192 million investment at 13th Street, Baltimore Avenue and the Boardwalk,” Kinsley’s statement reads. “Ocean City will be the mid-Atlantic Margaritaville, rivaling the Bahamas, Nashville and Florida resorts as the quaint beach town of choice. Plus, this new project will help Ocean City attract more and bigger conventions to our beautiful convention space with people spending more of their money in Ocean City all year-round, not just during the summer.”
According to the statement, the only thing that stands in the way of the creation of Margaritaville and the jobs, tax revenue and expanded tourism it promises is the allocation of the existing portion of abandoned right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue. While the petition is an attempt to halt that conveyance, the Margaritaville section between 13th and 14th streets just happens to be the first of what will be many.
“For years, the town has been planning to grant to narrow abandoned portions of Baltimore Avenue for better uses and return these small areas to the tax rolls to generate money for the residents of Ocean City,” the release reads. “Margaritaville will provided 100% of parking needed for this project, proximate to the Boardwalk, plus there will be spinoff benefits to other hotels, restaurants and shops with the conventions and shows that this new project will bring to Ocean City. The town and the council have supported this project along the way. Downtown is the right place for a project of his scale and density. We have seen the overwhelming success of Margaritaville locations in other states to attract out-of-towners. Now is our chance.”