OCEAN CITY – In addition to seeking air rights over a portion of Washington Lane, the connections of a proposed resort hotel say they will also request a setback variance, giving them more amenity space to bring the Margaritaville brand to Ocean City.
On Monday, the Mayor and Council agreed to advance a request to convey air rights over a portion of Washington Lane to a first reading. In a public hearing this week, Hugh Cropper, attorney for MHROC Property Owners LLC, said his client is seeking a conveyance to allow a hotel to be developed in the oceanfront block between 13th and 14th streets where the Phillips Beach Plaza once operated.
“I would like to say that my clients are very desirous of building a Margaritaville resort on this property, but I can’t tell you that what is here is going to qualify as a Margaritaville resort because it doesn’t have as much restaurant space, convention space and other amenities,” he told the council. “That is our ultimate desire, but we cannot tie this to Margaritaville.”
On Monday, the Mayor and Council held a public hearing to consider the abandonment and conveyance of air rights above a portion of Washington Lane, which bisects the proposed development project between 13th and 14th streets. By granting the conveyance of air rights, officials say the property owner will be able to construct a single building connecting properties to the east and west of the 16-foot public alley.
“Tonight, they have proposed a height-by-right hotel with 230 units …,” Cropper said. “We’re asking for approval for an oceanfront resort hotel. I’m sure it will be flagged or branded, but I can’t guarantee that this will be a Margaritaville.”
In July, the developers of the proposed Margaritaville project submitted a new site plan to the town’s planning and zoning department that includes fewer amenities, less square footage and a different configuration. The second plan, which would be built under the height-by-right statute if a planned overlay district designation is not secured, also includes a request to convey air rights above Washington Lane to the developer.
Becker Morgan Group Principal Jack Mumford told the council Monday the developer was seeking air rights from 14 feet above Washington Lane to roughly 120 feet above Washington Lane. The proposed 11-story hotel would include a 60-foot setback from the Boardwalk, ground-floor retail, a sixth-floor activity deck and a rooftop pool.
The plans also call for a 20-foot drive aisle, three-foot bike lane and two, five-foot-wide sidewalks along Washington Lane. Retail shops would be located to the east of the alleyway, while the hotel lobby and elevators would be located to the west.
“The 16-foot alley remains exactly where it is today, and we extend the opening,” he explained.
In his testimony Monday, Mumford opined the air rights served no public purpose. Blaine Smith, former zoning administrator for the Town of Ocean City, agreed.
“I don’t see any reason for any public purpose,” he said. “I qualify that because they own the whole block. If there were other properties owned by individuals, there might be a purpose.”
Smith said conveying the air rights above Washington Lane to the developer would also improve the project.
“It connects the people so they don’t have to go to the ground level and walk across the alley,” he said. “It makes the building function much better for a public purpose.”
During Monday’s hearing, Cropper told the council the plan as presented included a 60-foot setback from the Boardwalk, which is required under the height-by-right statute. In addition to the conveyance of air rights, he said his client wanted to seek a setback reduction from the town’s board of zoning appeals (BZA).
“If the board of zoning appeals saw fit to give us relief from that setback and bring the two-story portion out some so we could have more amenities and more retail we would like to have, we would like to have that flexibility,” he said. “So we’re presenting this site plan, but again we would ask that your approval include allowing us, if we get those approvals, to go as close as 32 feet with only a two-story portion of the building.”
During the public hearing, two residents spoke out regarding the proposed air rights conveyance. John Adkins questioned if the alleyway would be wide enough or tall enough to accommodate trucks and emergency vehicles.
“When you’re driving a big truck – and we’re talking about a truck that weighs 30,000 pounds or more – you got to have the height to get through,” he said. “And this says it’s going to be 14 feet. I want to make sure that’s 14 feet in the clear from the roadway.”
Resident Vince Gisriel said he opposed the air rights conveyance, as he believed it impacted air and light quality and contributed to overcrowding.
“I submit to you that if you allow this to continue, you’re going to inundate the town with undue mass and density that is not conducive to the quality of life in this town,” he said. “I’m reminded in the comprehensive plan that Ocean City on an average summer weekend is eight times as dense as the city of Baltimore and nearly eleven times as dense as the city of Annapolis. So I really think you should seriously consider the practice of conveying these air rights.”
Gisriel added that the town should consider charging a fee for air rights. He noted the subject was debated by the Mayor and Council as far back as 2002.
“It’s not a novel idea,” he said.
Following the public hearing, the council made a motion to advance to a first reading an ordinance conveying the air rights over Washington Lane to the developer and to require the developer to improve and maintain the three-foot bike lane, 20-foot drive aisle, and five-foot sidewalks. In addition, the project may be able to seek relief from the BZA to reduce the front yard setback to no less than 32 feet for the first two stories. The current code requires a 32-foot setback from the Boardwalk unless a building is constructed under the height-by-right statute.
“We have no idea what the BZA would do,” said City Solicitor Heather Stansbury. “But if they granted him relief, he wouldn’t have to come back before you.”
In reference to Gisriel’s comments, Councilman John Gehrig said he was not opposed to a discussion on charging for air rights. While he acknowledged that the council had conveyed air rights for other projects in town, he noted this specific project proposed having several floors above the alleyway.
“And at some point, we need to change the precedence here,” he said. “We can’t go from one project being a hallway to the next project being a few rooms to the next one being three or four stories to now we’re like 10, 11 stories … I think it’s worth a discussion.”
For his part, Councilman Will Savage said he saw the benefits of conveying air rights to the developer. However, he agreed a broader discussion on compensation should be had at a later date.
“I’m certainly not opposed to what Mr. Gisriel suggested,” he said. “We’ve had several other citizens that have come in here under public comment with the other properties, most recently the Majestic, and said the same thing. While I’m not opposed to it, I do think it’s unfair to this developer to throw this in their lap right now.”
Officials said the motion on the table Monday would essentially give the developer permission to keep the air rights if the BZA allows them to change the front yard setback in their site plans. Some on the council shared their concerns that the motion would appear as an endorsement.
“I don’t think that the City Council should weigh in or have a perception of weighing in on that issue,” Gehrig said.
After further discussion, the motion on the table failed in a 3-3 vote, with Gehrig, Savage and Council President Matt James opposed and Councilman Peter Buas absent.
A second motion that had no reference to the developer’s BZA request passed in a 6-0 vote.