OC Council, Planning Commission Agree Excessive Lighting Issue Needs Staff Study

OCEAN CITY — How much light is too much was a topic of discussion during a joint meeting of the Mayor and Council and the Planning Commission last week.

During site plan reviews for new hotel, condominium projects and other new businesses, the planning commission reviews lighting plans to determine the potential impact on neighboring properties. There are sections in the town’s current code that prescribe the allowable lumens and other ambient light for new projects, but advancements in technology, including energy-efficient LED lights, for example, have been cause for a closer look at the current code.

One recent addition to the downtown skyline is the Cambria Hotel at the foot of the Route 50 bridge with its hyper-light LED balcony lights but there are plenty of other examples around town. During the joint session on Tuesday, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville provided an update of the staff’s effort to address the growing issue.

“The gist of this is our current code has not been helpful in allowing us to enforce brightness,” he said. “With the LED lights, we measure foot candles at the property line, but those measurements are not capturing the brightness of them and if they should probably be required to have shielding.”

Neville said there are several examples in town where lighting technology has exceeded what the current code allows or should allow. Most notably, perhaps because of its location at the foot of the Route 50 bridge and one of the main entrances to the town is the Cambria Hotel, the LED balcony lights of which are immediately noticeable and have become a fixture on the downtown landscape. However, the Cambria Hotel is just one example.

“The way the code is set up, we have hotels lighting up the beaches, we have the restaurant at the foot of the Boardwalk lighting up the Inlet and bayside developments lighting up the landscape,” he said. “Ocean City has typically been proud of its skyline and rightfully so, but the bayside has never been regulated. We’re recommending a review of the code because some of these projects are just so bright.”

Neville said the challenge is differentiating between the light emitted from a single project and the ambient light from other sources in the same area. In an effort to curtail excessive noise on the Boardwalk from street performers in recent years, the town commissioned a study of the music or other noise from a single busker compared to the ambient sounds from the crowded Boardwalk to determine appropriate distances, for example. Neville said a similar approach could be attacked when examining the lighting issue.

“It might follow a similar path as the noise on the Boardwalk issue,” he said. “We have to measure the ambient contributors and not just the single source. There are three options, really. We can acknowledge we are aware of the issue and do nothing, we can acknowledge we are aware of the issue and direct staff to look at the problem, or we can move forward and draft an ordinance to address the problem.”

City Manager Terry McGean said the Cambria Hotel’s bright LED lights on balconies facing the bay and the entrance to the town along the Route 50 bridge was the catalyst for the discussion, but there were other examples throughout the town. Under the planning commission’s purview, light projecting from new development projects or new businesses, such as a miniature golf course for example near a residential area is always an issue.

Similarly, light emanating from a new condominium building or hotel, for example, is also always an issue when site plans are reviewed and building permits are issued. Another example which has come under scrutiny in recent months is the Rivendell condominiums uptown. City Manager Terry McGean said the planning commission and staff could review the current code and make recommendations if a change was required.

“I think we’ve all heard the complaints,” he said. “We’ve heard about the Cambria, and we’ve heard about Rivendell. We all agree we have a problem. If the Mayor and Council and the planning commission believe there is a problem, staff can work on it and come back with a solution.”

Planning Commissioner Maryellen Rosenblit agreed.

“I think there is a problem,” she said. “I think staff should work on a solution.”

Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson said the Cambria Hotel is perhaps the poster child of the problem because of its prominent position at the entrance to the resort. He said he has heard complaints about driving safety on the bridge because of the brightness of the hotel.

“We’ve heard complaints particularly about the Cambria,” he said. “Some people don’t feel safe because it is just so bright.”

Neville said the staff is cognizant of measuring brightness as part of the approval process for new projects. LED lighting provides an opportunity for a project to accomplish its illumination goals more efficiently and environmentally friendly, but it sometimes comes at the cost of the surrounding areas. Neville said planning staff is keeping up with the changes as best as it can and there are other alternatives if it continues to be a problem.

“We have purchased affordable, low-end light meters and I think it would be worth at least one round using what we have to test the lighting at the source,” he said. “There are lighting engineers, but I don’t think we need to go out-of-house at this point. I think we can come back with some recommendations for potential changes in the code.”

Of course, more light is often better than the alternative, a point made by Mayor Rick Meehan.

“Are we talking about just the waterfront?” he said. “I just don’t want to step on our own toes. There are places where lighting can be our friend.”

The council ultimately voted unanimously to have staff continue to explore the excessive lighting issue and come back with recommendations and a timeline.

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.