Resort Officials To Revisit Baltimore Avenue Project

OCEAN CITY – Resort officials have agreed to delay the approval of the town’s capital improvement plan, giving staff additional time to gather cost estimates for moving forward with at least one component of the Baltimore Avenue redevelopment project.

While the Mayor and Council was expected to discuss and adopt the fiscal year 2024 capital improvement plan (CIP) at its March 14 work session, officials this week agreed to postpone the matter once more in an effort to reach some sort of compromise on the redevelopment of Baltimore Avenue. Councilman Peter Buas proposed staff present the Mayor and Council with an option to resume the project by focusing on undergrounding utilities along the corridor.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I think getting this project started at any capacity is of the utmost importance,” he said. “If we do the undergrounding now and postpone the streetscaping part to get it underway, that’s something we should seriously consider.”

The draft CIP was first presented to the Mayor and Council in January. And last month, the council reviewed the project rankings and the selection of projects that were included in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

While the proposed planning document classifies projects by level of importance – with number one being the most critical projects and number five being the least – a bulk of recent discussions have centered around the major renovation of the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division to 15th streets and its placement on the priority list. Ultimately, the council agreed to keep the Baltimore Avenue redevelopment at its current ranking of three, but to put a pause on the $44 million project until grant opportunities could be explored.

“The cost changed the dynamics of this project …,” Mayor Rick Meehan said at the time. “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.”

Some of the work proposed for the phased Baltimore Avenue project included undergrounding utilities, widening sidewalks and improving the overall streetscape. While the Baltimore Avenue project was first presented with a price tag of $20 million – funded in part by a municipal bond sale and a combination of potential state and federal grants – the estimated price tag in recent months has more than doubled.

During Monday’s council meeting, Buas said he wanted staff to present a cost estimate for undergrounding of utilities and its debt service impact on the general fund. He proposed the Mayor and Council move its discussion of the CIP to the March 28 work session.

“I maintain and reiterate that I think it’s the most important project we’ve done and will do in some time,” he said. “In connection with the CIP, while I support the project at its current scope, in the spirit of progress I’d like to look at some compromises to get it moving again and reduce some of the fiscal impact.”

Council President Matt James said he supported the idea and questioned if the city manager could present a breakdown of the project’s different components.

“I’d be interested in looking at the numbers if we could have it broken out,” he said. “Could you get it to us prior to discussing the CIP so we have time to digest it?”

For his part, City Manager Terry McGean said he already had most of the information being requested.

“We can talk about it on the 28th if that works for you all,” he said.

Councilman John Gehrig, however, questioned if property owners should pay for undergrounding utilities.

“If my community has above-ground utilities and as an association we wanted our utilities undergrounded, shouldn’t we pay for it?” he said.

McGean said that would be the case if it only benefited that community.

“Baltimore Avenue is a little bit different animal in that it also has the transmission lines on it,” he said. “So undergrounding those transmission lines, if you accept the premise that an undergrounded line is more resilient than an above-ground line, which I think most people in the industry do, then undergrounding those particular lines, I would argue, has a benefit just beyond that corridor because those major transmission lines serve a good portion of the south end of town.”

Buas agreed.

“If you underground a neighborhood, you impact the people in your neighborhood,” he said. “If you underground a gateway, a major corridor, you’re impacting every person that drives down that corridor.”

Gehrig said he supported having a discussion on the Baltimore Avenue project, but noted there should be a town-wide plan for undergrounding utilities. He argued those property owners farthest away from the project should not bear the same cost as those along Baltimore Avenue.

“Who benefits and how it’s paid for matters …,” he said. “It is a fairness situation.”

Meehan, however, said the project would benefit the entire town. He argued the town should continue to reinvest in its community.

“If you underground the utilities, it improves the neighborhoods, it improves property values, and I think that helps all of Ocean City,” 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.