Council Hits Pause On Baltimore Avenue Project; Decision Impacts Right-Of-Way Abandonment Process

Council Hits Pause On Baltimore Avenue Project; Decision Impacts Right-Of-Way Abandonment Process
The Mayor and Council are pictured during Tuesday's work session. Photo by Bethany Hooper

OCEAN CITY – With support to pause the Baltimore Avenue redevelopment project, council members this week also agreed to hold off on the first steps of the associated right-of-way abandonment process.

On Tuesday, the council voted unanimously to approve the formal ranking of projects included in the town’s draft capital improvement plan (CIP). While the proposed planning document lists a total of 37 projects ranging from one, critical, to five, for future consideration, a bulk of this week’s discussion centered around a major renovation of the Baltimore Avenue corridor and its placement on the list.

“Before we did the ranking this year, Baltimore Avenue was number one,” Council Secretary Tony DeLuca said. “Now it’s listed as not very important. I’d like to have a discussion on that.”

In recent years, a major renovation of Baltimore Avenue from North Division Street to 15th Street has been on the town’s radar. In addition to widening sidewalks and improving the overall aesthetics of the corridor, the project also includes undergrounding utilities.

Last month, however, the council agreed to split the project in two phases over several years after learning the estimated cost – which would be funded in part by a municipal bond sale and a combination of potential state and federal grants – had more than doubled from $20 million to $44 million.

It also proved to be the reason why town staff and some council members said they had placed the project lower on the CIP rankings list approved Tuesday.

“It was at $20 million, and now it’s more than doubled,” Council President Matt James said.

Councilman John Gehrig said he based his ranking of the project on its ability to generate revenue, as well as its funding sources. He argued that the redevelopment of Baltimore Avenue was wanted, but not needed.

“Baltimore Avenue is totally functional,” he said. “No one ever contacts us and said, ‘I can’t believe I come into town and down Baltimore Avenue and power lines are all over the place.’”

He added that the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) also had plans to pave the Baltimore Avenue corridor this fall. He said it could be an opportunity for the town to focus on smaller projects, such as widening the sidewalks.

“That is an option,” he said. “Before we make a decision that’s tens of millions of dollars, I think we should know all of our options … It’s just a matter of cost.”

DeLuca disagreed, arguing that the longer the town waited, the more expensive the project would be. Councilman Peter Buas added that the town should pursue the project sooner rather than later and move the redevelopment of Baltimore Avenue further up the town’s priority list.

“Now is the time to do Baltimore Avenue,” he said, “and I think it should be a very important project.”

Gehrig questioned how the town would pay for the project.

“All of this stuff, and no one has once asked how we are paying for it,” he said. “It’s at least $2.7 million a year in debt service. That’s almost 3 cents on the property tax.”

While he acknowledged that undergrounding utilities along Baltimore Avenue would create a more resilient community in the event of any major storms, Mayor Rick Meehan suggested the project be paused until more discussions could be had on funding opportunities.

“The cost changed the dynamics of this project …,” he said. “Because of that and because there are some unknowns, I think putting it on pause is absolutely the right thing to do. I think it will give us time to answer some of those questions and hopefully be able to move forward at some point.”

City Manager Terry McGean noted that the project ranked lower among staff because of its cost.

“I’m a little more optimistic about trying to get grant funding, but that’s going to take time,” he said.

Buas reiterated his support for the project and presented a motion to not only move the ranking of the Baltimore Avenue project from important to very important, but to continue with the project schedule as outlined. That motion failed with just Buas, DeLuca and Councilman Frank Knight in support.

Ultimately, the council agreed to keep the Baltimore Avenue redevelopment at its current ranking, but to put a pause on the project until funding opportunities could be explored.

McGean, however, questioned what effect that would have on the abandonment process, in which the town would convey the entire strip of right-of-way to the adjacent property owners along Baltimore Avenue.

“I do need to know from council …,” he said. “Right now, we plan on sending letters out for the right-of-way abandonment tomorrow.”

After further discussion, the council voted unanimously to not send right-of-way letters to property owners along Baltimore Avenue.

“My position would be we are not going to abandon unless we’re doing the road,” Buas said. “They are tied together.”

Public Works Director Hal Adkins also recommended the council pause the project, which would allow SHA to pave Baltimore Avenue this fall. The council voted 5-2, with Knight and Buas opposed, to proceed with the state’s paving schedule along the corridor.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.