Habitable Attic Ordinance Passes Second Reading; Officials Compromise On Parking

Habitable Attic Ordinance Passes Second Reading; Officials Compromise On Parking
Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – Officials last week approved a code amendment that will allow habitable attics, but not before making a compromise on parking requirements.

Last week, the Ocean City Council voted 6-1 to approve the second reading of an ordinance to amend the town’s zoning code. While the change will allow habitable areas in the attics of residential dwellings, it also redefined accessory rooms, essentially tacking on parking parameters for multifamily units.

“An accessory room does not require any additional spaces for a detached single-family home,” said City Manager Terry McGean. “It does for an attached townhouse/condominium. It requires half a space.”

In October, following a public hearing, the Ocean City Planning and Zoning 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 off-street parking spaces to require one additional space for any enclosed loft or habitable attic in a single-family detached dwelling and one additional half space for any enclosed loft or habitable attic in multi-family dwellings.

However, when the proposed code amendment was brought before the Mayor and Council at a work session in November, the added parking requirements were removed.

Since that time, officials have debated if such parking requirements are necessary for habitable attic space. Those in support argued a lack of added parking would impact residential neighborhoods, while those in opposition argued the town code already addressed parking requirements.

Back on the agenda last week for a second reading, Councilman Peter Buas proposed an ordinance change that would not incorporate supplemental parking but would redefine accessory rooms to include finished habitable attics. He said in doing so, it would require an additional half space for multifamily dwellings.

“I think it’s a fair compromise,” he said.

City Solicitor Heather Stansbury told council members last week the planning commission initially proposed an ordinance to allow habitable attics after recognizing an ongoing problem. Instead of stopping people from using attics as habitable space, she said they saw an opportunity to include certain parking requirements.

“In an effort to legitimize what they knew was already occurring, they thought this amendment made the most sense because it’s happening anyway,” she explained. “This at least made them have parking.”

For his part, Councilman John Gehrig said he did not want to allow habitable attics without first discussing short-term rentals. He argued allowing additional sleeping space in attics would only exacerbate occupancy issues and parking problems in residential neighborhoods.

“We’re assuming it’s one bedroom with a bed up there. There are attics with multiple rooms, where you can put a couple of twin beds or bunk beds,” he explained. “If that house turns into a rental, you can put more people in some of these homes than a hotel. I don’t care if it’s one extra space if you’re going to eventually have 15 people visiting a vacation rental in a neighborhood.”

Councilman Frank Knight said he agreed with Gehrig. He argued the rental situation needed to be addressed at the council’s next joint meeting with the planning commission. He added that it also warranted a discussion with the board of zoning appeals.

“It seems like at every meeting, they are approving parking variances,” he said. “Last week at their meeting, they had six spaces they had gotten rid of. That’s something we can address with the BZA.”

Gehrig said the existing town code did little to enforce short-term rentals. While he argued he didn’t care what people did inside their homes, he did care about the impact it could have on the neighborhood.

“I only really care about what’s outside,” he said. “I’m not saying people can’t rent their homes. But we need parameters, so they are not destroying our neighborhoods and passing an ordinance that allows us to put in more beds and turn these big homes into hotels.”

Mayor Rick Meehan echoed Gehrig’s concerns.

“I think the rental situation has been a problem for a long time. There’s been three- and four-bedroom houses throughout Ocean City I think have become heavy rentals …,” he said.  “Now we’re seeing because some of the houses are bigger it’s a little more visible. There are more people than there were before.”

Following a lengthy discussion, the council voted 6-1, with Gehrig opposed, to approve the amended ordinance on second reading. The ordinance now defines a finished habitable attic as an accessory room, which would require an additional half parking space for multifamily units and townhomes.

“What Mr. Buas offered is a good minimum step to ensure we adopt new definitions of habitable attic and dormer space and enclosed lofts …,” said City Planner Bill Neville. “It’s a good way to add the new definitions and keep everything else status quo until we solve some of these problems.”

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.