Council Denies Margaritaville Hearing Request For Right-Of-Way Purchase; Developer Presents Project Revisions

Council Denies Margaritaville Hearing Request For Right-Of-Way Purchase; Developer Presents Project Revisions
An older rendering of the proposed Margaritaville development is pictured at its southwest corner along Baltimore Avenue. A new, more scaled back version of the Margaritaville project will feature fewer amenities and less square footage. Image Courtesy of Becker Morgan Group

OCEAN CITY – The attorney for the proposed Margaritaville project said his client is exploring other options after the Ocean City council denied the developer’s request to hold a public hearing for the purchase of right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue.

In a work session Tuesday, the Mayor and Council had before them a request from the connections of the Margaritaville project to consider abandoning a portion of unused right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue – between 13th Street and 14th Street –and selling it to the developer.

Attorney Hugh Cropper said his client was seeking to purchase the easternmost 20 feet of right-of-way along the site of the proposed Margaritaville project. That additional land, he said, would allow the developer to meet the 90,000-square-foot site requirement to qualify for a planned overlay district (POD) designation.

“We’re not asking for a yes vote,” he told the council. “All we’re asking for is that you set a public hearing, so you can take public comments on this request.”

Earlier this year, resort officials agreed to rescind an ordinance allowing the town to abandon a narrow strip of right-of-way between 13th and 14th streets to the developer of the Margaritaville project after Ocean City resident Margaret Pillas submitted a successful petition for referendum challenging the legislation. Cropper said the referendum had stopped the project from moving forward.

“We were trying to tailor the project from what we heard from the planning commission and the council when the referendum stopped us in our tracks,” he said this week. “This is where we were when we pulled the plug.”

In an effort to secure a POD designation for the project, Cropper told the council this week his client was willing to pay for any appraiser the town selects and purchase the easternmost portion of right-of-way at fair market value. He said while planned overlay developments were encouraged in the town’s comprehensive plan, they were difficult to achieve.

“This is an area designated for PODs,” he said. “The problem is between North Division Street and 15th Street, because of the width of Baltimore Avenue right-of-way, no one can achieve 90,000 square feet. We have a statute that says this is an area that qualifies for PODs, a comp plan that says this is an area where we want PODs, but nobody can qualify for a POD. This isn’t just a Margaritaville problem on 13th Street.”

Representatives also took time this week to present new conceptual designs for the Margaritaville project. Jack Mumford, principal architect at Becker Morgan Group, said the proposed room count had been reduced from 265 to 257, and gross square footage had been reduced by roughly 10,000 square feet. He also noted that the 13th floor, as well as all stacked parking, had been eliminated, and the oceanfront recreation deck had been lowered.

“It’s still a work in progress, but this is where we are right now,” he said.

When asked if significant changes have been made to the project, Mumford said there have been several reductions. Cropper said those changes would be reviewed as part of the approval process.

“We have a lot to do, even if you vote to sell us this land,” he said. “We have to go back through the POD process, we have to go back through site plan, we have to go back for everything. So these are very conceptual.”

Mayor Rick Meehan questioned if another public hearing was also required for the air rights the developer secured over Washington Lane, the alley that bisects the property.

“You’ve made changes …,” he said. “I thought granting the air rights was very specific to the project as presented.”

Cropper said officials could have that discussion at a later date.

“I assumed that if we reduced the project to address concerns, the air rights would still be valid,” he replied. “But we can talk about that.”

Back to the topic at hand, Cropper said his client was simply seeking a public hearing to consider the purchase of right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue.

“I think it’s clear you haven’t needed this 20 feet in 100 or however many years since the Sinepuxent plat was recorded, and you are not going to need it,” he said. “Your engineers have been telling you for four or five years that you’re not going to need it. We’re asking to buy it.”

Councilman Will Savage questioned if the developer could still build the resort to 12 stories without the POD designation. Mumford said they could, as it was allowed under the height by right statute.

“We’ve reduced the building down to 12 stories now, which we would be allowed by right anyway,” he said. “But we would have larger setbacks.”

Savage said he supported the Margaritaville project, but not at the expense of the Baltimore Avenue project, a phased redevelopment of the corridor that would include undergrounding utilities, widening sidewalks and improving the overall streetscape.

“The issue for me is you are asking us to take a hunk out of the Baltimore Avenue project for the future …,” he said. “If we give it away now, a council 50 years from now isn’t going to have that opportunity and we don’t know what the town’s needs will be then.”

Cropper, however, disagreed.

“I cannot envision a situation where this town would take over the whole 75 feet of right-of-way because you would cut off people’s front porches, you would cut off buildings,” he said. “It would narrow up that oceanfront strip so much that the remainder wouldn’t even look like what Ocean City looks like today.”

Meehan said he took issue with the project’s setbacks, particularly along the Boardwalk. He questioned if securing a POD designation would increase setback requirements. Cropper said it could, as setbacks would be determined by the planning commission and, ultimately, the Mayor and Council.

“I stand to be corrected, but I think this project as a POD has more open land area than height by right because the southern parking lot in a POD has to remain completely open …,” he added. “With height by right, I think you would have more lot coverage and taller buildings.”

Councilman Peter Buas said having a POD designation was the best approach for completing the project, but he shared his concerns about how the developer’s purchase of right-of-way would impact the Baltimore Avenue project.

“I agree wholeheartedly the POD is very valuable and is better than doing it without the POD,” he said. “I just can’t get past our plan for Baltimore Avenue, to fund the road and revert the entire right-of-way for the whole corridor to the property owners. Selling it doesn’t flow with that plan. I can’t support selling it. But when the project’s completed, and we go with that reversion, I stand fast in that commitment.”

Council President Matt James also voiced his concerns regarding the developer’s request.

“My concern is if we were going to sell this section of Baltimore Avenue, we’d have a section to the north and south that would remain city right-of-way,” he said. “If we were to move forward with any version of the Baltimore Avenue redevelopment plan, we would be handcuffed in that one block.”

Councilman John Gehrig said he didn’t oppose having the public comment on the proposed purchase and made a motion to move the issue to a public hearing. Councilman Frank Knight seconded the motion.

City Manager Terry McGean clarified that the connections of the Margaritaville project were not interested in purchasing the entire Baltimore Avenue right-of-way, just the easternmost 20 feet.

“If the Baltimore Avenue project went forward the way it’s currently designed, the expansion would still occur at the Margaritaville property,” he said.

After further discussion, the council voted on the motion to move the issue to a public hearing. The motion failed, with Buas, James, Savage and Councilwoman Carol Proctor opposed.

In an interview following Tuesday’s meeting, Cropper said the council’s decision did not come as a surprise. He said his client continues to explore options for the Margaritaville site.

“The developer is committed to moving forward with the project and they are exploring whether to do a site plan under the statute we call height by right, or whether to do a site plan which is not a POD,” he said. “With height by right, if you have a parcel over a certain size, as that parcel gets bigger you are able to increase height if it complies with shadow requirements.”

Cropper, however, said his client preferred having a POD.

“We prefer POD because it’s a master plan development that has flexibility,” he said, adding that the town’s planning commission could also negotiate project elements such as setbacks.

But Cropper said the 90,000-square-foot requirement for securing a POD designation cannot be met without the right-of-way.

“You should read any law so it has meaning, so having a POD area between North Division and 15th Street, where none of properties qualify, is not a good situation …,” he said. “It impacts any properties up and down there.”

Cropper also acknowledged the council’s concerns regarding the Baltimore Avenue project, but he argued the developer’s request to purchase a portion of the right-of-way could support the town’s road redevelopment plans.

“This would have been a first step to get it done,” he said. “And if we paid for it, they could have earmarked it for the project.”

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.