Commission Begins Comprehensive Plan Review

OCEAN CITY – A discussion on pyramidal zoning, housing trends and conditional use requirements highlighted a recent work session on Ocean City’s comprehensive plan update.

Last week, members of the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission convened a work session to kickstart discussions on the town’s comprehensive plan update. Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville told officials that ideas proposed at the commission level would help shape the planning document as it moves through the technical review process.

“What I envision the staff and the planning commission working on in the next several months is a technical review,” he said. “And I think we are better off referring to it as that rather than an update.”

Earlier this month, Neville announced that the town would once again embark on a project to update its comprehensive plan, a document that outlines the community’s future growth and development goals. The most recent update, he said, was completed in 2017 and adopted in 2018.

Officials said the update would follow a similar process to the one set in 2017, but with planning commission meetings focused on certain topics and chapters. To that end, commission members last week started their review with a look at the comprehensive plan’s introduction.

“I’ve highlighted why the comprehensive plan needs to be updated,” he told the commission last week. “That was in this introduction section the last time it was adopted. It’s a good reminder this is the time when we can start to identify new trends or changes, incorporate new information and make sure we are aligned with county, state and national priorities.”

Neville noted that during the last comprehensive plan update, the town touched on topics such as redevelopment and infill, the next generation of family demographics, environmental changes and resiliency, and adaptive management of a tourism-based economy. He said the introduction chapter of the updated comprehensive plan provided the town with an opportunity to address those additions.

“There is an opportunity to describe what was adopted in 2017 and what’s been accomplished essentially looking at our implementation list,” he said.

Neville added that the introduction of the comprehensive plan could also be updated to include topics such as housing.

“I think this is a very simple section of the comp plan,” he said. “But it is a good opportunity, if you want to take the time, to just poll yourselves to see if there are specific topics you are interested in that you’d like staff to do more research on and bring back to you.”

Commissioner Joel Brous said housing trends should be discussed further in the comprehensive plan. He noted that townhouse developments were gaining in popularity but wasn’t sure if the comprehensive plan should encourage them or deter them.

“I don’t know where we’re headed with that, but it’s a big trend we’re seeing,” he said.

Commissioner Palmer Gillis said he also wanted to discuss zoning code changes. He said if the town were to consider a zoning code change, it should first be addressed in the comprehensive plan.

“I compare it to a three-legged stool. You have the zoning code, you have the comprehensive plan, and you have the planning and zoning citizen commission …,” he said. “If we’re trying to make a change in the zoning code, the first leg of that three-legged stool comes within the comprehensive plan.”

Neville agreed.

“If it’s more of a comprehensive change to a zoning district, the town has the option, after adoption of a revised comp plan, to do a comprehensive rezoning that the town would initiate,” he explained. “So that’s a procedure that’s available to the town. But then beyond that, if it’s an applicant-initiated zoning change, it still has to meet the test you referenced. So the supporting language in the comp plan could make the case for a change in the neighborhood.”

Gillis said he also wanted to discuss pyramidal zoning. He said he was concerned about the uptick in residential development within commercial districts.

“A 30,000-feet-in-the-air question is do we want to have any discussion within the comprehensive plan about pyramidal zoning?” he said. “I know that’s really a horrible subject in this town, but we see what’s happening on the north end with Sanibel and the Sun & Surf. It’s 100% residential on highway frontage. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good look for the city. They’re not even trying to do mixed-use with commercial-residential at all.”

Gillis said the topic of pyramidal zoning had been discussed over the years, but that no action had ever been taken. Commission Chair Joe Wilson said he also wanted to see it addressed in the comprehensive plan.

“Particularly, it seems like LC-1 zones,” he added. “That always seems to be the zone that’s an issue.”

Gillis also suggested that the town eliminate conditional use requirements for mini golf courses in commercial districts.

“We talked about that last time,” he said. “I don’t know if that fits into the comprehensive plan. I know it’s a code change.”

Wilson agreed.

“Anytime it comes in front of us, it seems like a lot of extra work for something we’re all in support of,” he said.

Commissioner Janet Hough said she agreed with the change, so long as the mini golf course had no added amusements. She highlighted the most recent Nick’s Mini Golf project, which secured a conditional use for the development of an 18-hole course and accessory ropes course.

“I hear you loud and clear on that,” Gillis replied.

For his part, Wilson said he wanted to see the town’s comprehensive plan reinforce its commitment to the development of a bayside boardwalk.

“The only thing keeping me up at night is the bayside boardwalk,” he said. “I know it’s already in our comprehensive plan, but I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to strengthen it and support maybe potential future code changes that require it or something along those lines.”

Neville said the introductory chapter of the comprehensive plan also touched on the town’s strategic plan, which was summarized in a two-page document on the city manager’s website.

“How does this compare with the comprehensive plan?” he said. “It’s squarely part of it but not all of it. What the council looks at is budget and CIP projects and how the land use goals interact with the project-related activity.”

He questioned, however, if the commission had any interest in creating a similar two-page document for each of the updated chapters in the comprehensive plan. Wilson said he supported the idea.

“One question is whether the commission wants to take this same approach,” he said. “Should we create one of these two-page documents that goes with each chapter? We don’t want it to get out of control, but it almost feels like there needs to be maybe a land use version of this that goes along with the plan.”

Neville also reviewed the comprehensive planning process that would take place over the next six months. He added that the planning commission would also have an opportunity to discuss the comprehensive plan update with the Mayor and Council. He said a joint meeting between the two bodies is tentatively scheduled for late January.

“That’s probably our best shot at having the next discussion,” he said.

Following a lengthy discussion, Neville thanked commission members for their input.

“This is all great feedback,” he said. “This is the kind of idea generation we need. Each meeting, even if they are random thoughts, we can start to collect those and find a way to organize them in the plan update.”

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.