OCEAN CITY – A request to abandon a portion of Washington Lane will advance to a public hearing.
Following a lengthy discussion, the Mayor and Council agreed this week to advance a developer’s request to hold a public hearing on the abandonment of Washington Lane between 13th and 14th streets, or the alleyway that bisects the planned Margaritaville project. Attorney Hugh Cropper told officials Tuesday his client was seeking to purchase the alleyway to meet the 90,000-square-foot site requirement for a planned overlay district (POD) designation.
“This is a request to ask you to schedule a public hearing to accept comment on our request to purchase Washington Avenue, 16 feet wide, at fair market value,” he said. “We will hire and pay for an appraisal of your choice and offer to pay fair market value to purchase Washington Lane.”
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.
To that end, Cropper came before the Mayor and Council in May on behalf of his client with a request to hold a public hearing to purchase a portion of the right-of-way. During that meeting, however, the council voted 4-3 to deny the public hearing request, with those in opposition sharing concerns that a potential conveyance of right-of-way would impact the eventual redevelopment of the Baltimore Avenue corridor.
“The issue for me is you are asking us to take a hunk out of the Baltimore Avenue project for the future …,” Councilman Will Savage said at the time. “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.”
In a continuing effort to build a POD development, Cropper came back to the Mayor and Council this week with a request to hold a public hearing on the abandonment of Washington Lane. As a condition of the purchase, Cropper said his client was willing to accept that the additional square footage would not be used toward density.
“Again, we are asking that you move this forward to a public hearing, which is what we asked for before and where we were headed before we had the situation with Baltimore Avenue,” he said.
City Manager Terry McGean told the council this week that the developer had requested a similar abandonment on Oct. 26, 2021, but with the condition that the property owner would reconvey a deed of perpetual easement back to the town. While staff had initially provided a favorable recommendation, that request was withdrawn after the city solicitor determined it to be a legal conflict. By the Mayor and City Council’s Nov. 30 meeting of that year, staff recommended against proceeding with the abandonment.
“The staff recommendation of November 30 on the item withdrawn is verbatim the staff recommendation that you have today, August 1,” he said.
City Solicitor Heather Stansbury also told council members this week that the town’s planning commission had met between Oct. 26 and Nov. 30 of 2021 and had recommended that Washington Lane not be sold and should continue to provide public access.
“It seems like they made the determination it was providing public access at the time and that it should continue to provide public access,” McGean added.
Cropper, however, argued that the planning commission went against the request in favor of the developer securing air rights instead for its POD development.
“It was suggested at the time that I ask for air rights instead because it had appeared we had the Baltimore Avenue right-of-way issue resolved and we were going to achieve 90,000 square feet so we did not need the bed of the alley …,” he said. “So my prior request was withdrawn.”
Simply put, Stansbury said the abandonment issue comes down to if the council believes Washington Lane is no longer needed for public use or purpose.
“The analysis is really this,” she said. “If you know now you have enough information before you that it is needed for public use and/or that it serves a public purpose, then you don’t need to advance it to a public hearing. If you want to hear further testimony on that subject, then you would move to a public hearing, there would be sworn testimony, and at the end of that public hearing – either that evening or another night – you could then make a finding.”
For her part, Councilwoman Carol Proctor said she had looked at Washington Lane, which runs from North Division Street to 33rd Street, and had determined that several portions of the alleyway had already been abandoned and blocked off. She questioned why it would be needed for public use and bike and pedestrian access.
“It is not a consistent alley, and it’s already been closed 13 out of the 33 streets,” she said.
Councilman Frank Knight agreed, arguing it was no longer an unimpeded alleyway.
“That doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “What does exist is you have to zig and zag to even find Washington Lane.”
Mayor Rick Meehan, however, argued the recommendation from staff in October of 2021 stated that the alley was open and used for the public.
“To abandon an alley, you have to say there is no public purpose,” he said. “And it’s clear in the recommendation it says it’s open and used by the public.”
Councilman Peter Buas questioned if the Mayor and Council had ever made that determination. Cropper argued they had not.
“The Mayor and City Council has never made that finding,” he replied.
Buas also questioned the timeline for the project. Officials argued the property’s nonconformity for density is set to expire on Sept. 21, as the property has remained unused for two years.
“While it’s not totally relevant to the alley or the public hearing, if the alley was abandoned, could you explain how the applicant is going to get a public hearing on this, get their two readings of the ordinance and get back to a POD amendment all before the nonconformity expires?” he asked.
Cropper said it was something his client was concerned about, but that it would not impact the POD development.
“All we can do is move as quickly as we can and hope for the best and hope for a determination that’s in the best interest of the citizens of Ocean City,” he replied, “and looking at other precedents that have been set with respect to nonconformities.”
Stansbury said that while Buas’ question was generally relevant, it wasn’t what was being considered.
“Today you are supposed to decide whether you’d like to advance what is now the narrow issue of abandoning Washington Lane between 13th and 14th street to a public hearing,” she said. “That’s all that’s before you. Other issues are important and perhaps could come up at a public hearing.”
After further discussion, the council voted 4-3, with Buas, Council President Matt James and Councilman John Gehrig opposed, to move the developer’s request to a public hearing.
It should be noted that while they continue to seek a POD project, the connections of the Margaritaville development have concurrently submitted a new plan to the town that includes fewer amenities and less square footage.