Council Advances Code Amendments On Habitable Attics; Officials Debate Parking Impacts

Council Advances Code Amendments On Habitable Attics; Officials Debate Parking Impacts
File Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – A request to move forward with code amendments that would allow habitable attic space turned into a deeper discussion this week about parking and rentals.

On Tuesday, the Mayor and Council had before them a favorable recommendation from the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission to approve code amendments that would allow habitable areas in the attics of residential dwellings. While officials say the new provisions would address desires to build additional living space, some argued a larger discussion was needed on the impacts the amendments could have on parking and rentals.

“It’s almost like all of this needs to come together. We need to talk about garages, attics and rentals …,” said Councilman John Gehrig. “It’s all related. I think we need a holistic overview of what this means.”

In October, following a public hearing, the planning commission voted unanimously to forward proposed code amendments to the Mayor and Council with a favorable recommendation. The changes would define dormers and habitable attics, revise the definition of building height to allow habitable attic space, and amend the minimum number of required off-street parking spaces.

In his presentation Tuesday, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said under the current zoning code, attics could be used for non-habitable purposes such as closet storage and loft space but could not be used for sleeping. Oftentimes, however, those rooms are converted to bedrooms.

“Oftentimes some of these extra rooms are called libraries and studies and family rooms and that allows the project to move forward through the building permit process,” he explained.

The proposed code amendments, he said, would remove such restrictions and allow for habitable attic space. He said the change would also require one additional parking space for any habitable attic within single-family homes and an additional one-half parking space for any habitable attic in a multi-family dwelling or townhouse.

Neville told the council the amendments would not only address new construction, but renovations of existing structures. He said the change also ensured habitable attic space complied with the town’s building and fire codes.

“We see this as an opportunity to align the zoning ordinance with those other building codes and provide an opportunity for more living space that we can’t provide today given the restrictions,” he said.

For his part, Councilman Peter Buas applauded the changes but opposed the parking regulations associated with habitable attics. He said he believed other sections of the town code addressed parking.

“Reading the transcript and listening to the hearings, the concern of the planning commission was that the space could ultimately become a bedroom, which would maybe require more parking, but the code already provides for additional parking if it’s a bedroom,” he said. “So I don’t know if we should really be punishing a bonus room or rec area that’s not a bedroom with additional parking requirements. I think the planning commission’s concern about parking is already well established in the code by requiring a half space for a bedroom if it’s a bedroom.”

With that said, Buas made a motion to approve the planning commission’s recommendations and move it to a first reading, but with the omission of the proposed parking regulations. Mayor Rick Meehan, however, said parking needed to be addressed.

“I think that’s part of the problem is the fact these areas are built and later turned into living spaces, that there is a lack of parking,” he said.

Neville explained that the proposed parking regulations were meant to set parking requirements for habitable attics in single family homes, which was not addressed in the town code. He said omitting that proposed code amendment would essentially eliminate additional parking requirements for single family homes.

“In concept that might not be a problem because a single family dwelling typically is on a larger lot, has a driveway, and it’s easier to accommodate parking requirements for single family dwellings,” he explained. “So it’s not the biggest issue.”

Gehrig, however, shared his concerns that the proposed code amendments could encourage rentals and impact parking.

“The reason I bring this up is because at some point we are going to have hotels in neighborhoods, and they will be parking all over the streets,” he said.

Gehrig also noted that items initially stored in an attic could move to the garage, further impacting parking. He said he believed the council needed to have a more comprehensive discussion on habitable attics, rentals and parking. While the planning commission had forwarded proposed code amendments related to off-street and garage parking in residential districts, the council in early November sent those revisions back to the commission for revision.

“That’s the other recommendation the planning commission is reconsidering,” Neville said.

After further discussion, the council voted 5-2, with Gehrig and Council Secretary Tony DeLuca opposed, to approve the planning commission’s recommendations and to move the code amendments to a first reading with the omission of the proposed parking requirements.

“I really think it’s time we address all aspects together …,” DeLuca argued. “And I don’t see a sense of urgency.”

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.