Resort Planning Commission Talks Workforce Housing Change

OCEAN CITY – Discussions on a code amendment to define non-accessory employee housing highlighted a recent work session of the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission.

Last week, commission members met with Ocean City Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville to flesh out the details of a proposed code amendment allowing for non-accessory workforce housing. With several proposals from local businesses and organizations to construct employee housing, Neville said the town was seeking a way to make those projects a reality.

“We got to this point through a process where there were several proposals to provide employee housing in town that we wanted to support but our code didn’t allow because the proposals were for dormitory style structures, freestanding as a project, that were not tied to the employer who would be providing the housing …,” he explained. “Today our code allows for accessory employee housing in the building, on the lot with the employer. We felt that by creating non-accessory employee housing, it would open the door to these projects that were being proposed.”

Last year, the commission recommended a proposed code amendment that could help address the shortage of seasonal workforce housing in Ocean City. While the existing code defines employee housing as an accessory use – or living quarters with a portion of a main building or an accessory building located on the same site to be used by individuals employed on the premises – officials are looking to include employee housing as a non-accessory use.

The proposed amendment, which included other changes relating to workforce housing, was brought to the Mayor and Council before it was ultimately remanded back to the commission for revision.

“We forwarded that to the council with the recommendation that because every project is different it would be appropriate to have it follow the conditional use process, that way you could evaluate a project, attach conditions to it and move forward,” he said. “Council sent it back to the commission’s attention with a request to create the tiers that we discussed at the last meeting.”

Neville told commission members last week the commission had since proposed different approvals for small, medium, and large standalone employee housing projects, and to define the size thresholds for each.

“Essentially, let’s break out small projects to make it really easy to get those approved, medium-sized ones with site plan approval, and only the largest projects would go through conditional use,” he explained.

However, Neville said efforts to craft a code amendment had left him with additional questions. He said he had concerns in defining non-accessory employee housing and its effects on residential neighborhoods.

“Even though we originally approached this with the intent to just allow projects that would come in to create employee housing, once we open the code up and provide that as a permitted use, employee housing then would be eligible in a single-family home, a duplex, a townhouse, an apartment, a condo unit, in a high rise,” he said. “Any combination of residential unit in town could be eligible for employee housing, and I’m not sure that was the intent.”

Neville noted that property owners in the residential districts could secure a rental license and rent a single-family home to employees. However, he pointed out that defining non-accessory employee housing would eliminate some of the constraints.

“If it’s called employee housing you could essentially expand your house into the driveway, call it employee housing, and you wouldn’t have to provide the additional parking spaces …,” he said. “Once we create non-accessory employee housing, I think there are going to be unintended consequences to opening this up.”

Neville told commission members he also had questions about supplemental regulations, or best practices, being proposed for non-accessory workforce housing. He questioned if they should apply to both accessory and non-accessory units.

“If these are the best practices for how you do employee housing, ideally it would be a reference and approval requirement for both accessory and non-accessory,” he said.

He also questioned the maximum number of occupants allowed per bedroom in a non-accessory unit.

“One way to look at this is to break that standard apart, adopt a requirement that on the smaller projects, 16 [beds] or less, those would be limited to no more than four per room,” he explained. “If the applicant was doing a larger project, and went through the conditional use process, you could consider putting that in the conditional use criteria so that the planning commission’s recommendation, and the Mayor and Council’s final approval, could allow more persons per bedroom based on the design of the project.”

Commission members ultimately agreed that the conditional use process was favored in approving larger non-accessory housing projects. They also discussed best practices for occupancy requirements.

Neville said those discussions would be used to craft language that would be presented to the commission at a future meeting.

“What we’re trying to do is refine it, turn it into code language, bring it back to you so that it’s ready for a final review and move forward at that point,” he said.

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.