Planners allow turning ground floor storage into living space

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The Ocean City Planning Board approved a site plan modification allowing the Zeccardi family of 13th Street to turn previously uninhabitable storage space into living space at its March 7 meeting. The Ocean City Planning Board approved a site plan modification allowing the Zeccardi family of 13th Street to turn previously uninhabitable storage space into living space at its March 7 meeting. OCEAN CITY — It was far from a slam dunk, but the road to approval was made a whole lot easier by politely asking the planning board for permission.

Seeking to modify an existing five bedroom single family home at 601 13th St., part of a subdivision plan requiring planning board approval in 2003, by creating a ground floor accessory apartment, Joseph and Mary Zeccardi pleaded their case at a March 7 meeting.

Attorney Michael Fusco noted it was a move that could have been made quietly behind closed doors and often is, without notifying anyone. The Zeccardis, he said, were trying to do things the right way.

The planning board unanimously approved the conversion of what was billed as “storage” almost a decade ago into habitable living space, but “pretty please” only went so far. The Zeccardis admitted that they had been using the area as living space. The 9-0 decision followed discussion about the long-maligned “habitable space” issue and came up with a caveat; the Zeccardis are deed-restricted from selling the ground floor unit as a separate condo, but they may collect rent from guests.

The large home on the corner of Wesley Avenue and 13th Street is in a multi-family zone. Architect and engineer John Halperin said no changes would be needed to the exterior of the building; inside a wall, a double door would be created and in what was an existing laundry room on the plans, a kitchen would be created.

Single family homes and duplexes are permitted uses in the zone; but the proposed use was not, he said. The Zeccardis said they were looking to convert the space because their family had expanded since they built the home.

“My wife and I have three children, they are educated and married,” Joseph Zeccardi said. “Our family has doubled in size and we picked up some in-laws. They come down to visit and want their own space, that’s what gave us the idea to separate the space.

“My wife and I are very fussy, we keep the house in good shape, it’s not our intention to rent it,” he said.

Yet a friend may use the apartment when she is in town visiting her mother at Wesley Manor, he said, and she might pay to utilize the space.

Mary Zeccardi took umbrage with the use of “apartment” at the meeting.

“It’s not an apartment, its livable space we want for our family,” she said. “It will allow them privacy and allow us privacy.

“We turned a storage room into a bedroom,” she said.

Extended family kept arriving she said, and the question “how will we put two more kids in here” was answered by converting the ground floor area.

“It’s gotten to be a full house,” she said.

The building had numerous existing non-conformities, but planning board solicitor Gary Griffith said most were minor. A three-story building was permitted in 2003 when only two stories are permitted, he noted. The Zeccardi’s requested, and received a height variance at the time.

Fusco noted that the “habitable space” issue could be a “touchy subject” as the infamous bonus room created in an earlier era was often used as another dwelling unit.

“While labeled storage on the plan, it has outlets and ceilings,” he said. “It’s a simple conversion, really just changing the label. It looked and smelled like a habitable room, it just happened to be labeled storage.

“They’re looking to formalize the space and provide some privacy for the family as the family has grown significantly,” Fusco said. “They wanted to do the right thing before the board, quite frankly out of respect for the board. They wanted to be above board.”

Planning board member Gary Jessel said he was skeptical of the plan. A third floor was not permitted in 2003, but zoning and planning boards granted it, after allowing the oversized lot, which contained a large upper cottage style duplex with a wrap-around porch, to be subdivided, permitting the Zeccardis to build a single while a duplex was permitted on the other lot created by the subdivision.

“Now you essentially want a duplex, so make me feel good about that,” he said.

Fusco said that it would be mostly utilized by family members, in an effort to provide privacy.

“We wanted to come to the planning board rather than just doing it without anyone knowing,” Fusco said.

Deed restricting the property seemed to persuade planning board members that allowing an accessory apartment would not create a new dwelling unit. Jessel approved the proposal, but was not necessarily convinced it was the right thing to do.

“Part of our job here is to look at things,” he said. “We’re always told about the very positive things that people are going to do. This one baffles me. Yes, as Mr. Zeccardi said, most people would just go ahead and do this.

“I could think of a couple of ways to expand this further,” he said. “I will take them at their word; hopefully I will drive by and see a bunch of grandchildren playing in the yard. I hope they are honest people and doing the right thing.”

Board member Joe Sheppard thanked the Zeccardis for their honesty, which board members noted came at a cost of several thousand dollars.

Board member Dean Adams concurred, adding that he was assuaged by the deed restriction.

“I voted ‘yes’ on this plan when it came before the board in 2003; they have been honest and forthcoming,” board Chairman John Loeper said, adding that he wished the family “good luck.”

After the meeting, Loeper said he wished more people would be forthcoming.

“Come tell us, come forward, we’ll work with you,” he said.

Loeper said the “habitable space” issue that has caused so much angst for city officials over the years has become less of a problem in recent years.

“When someone converts the ground floor to useable space in a duplex, they usually get caught because the city performs an annual smoke detector check and they look down there,” Loeper said. Single family homeowners, he said, can get away with such a conversion, but the area cannot be converted into a condo for sale or, in any official capacity, for a rental unit.

“It’s under control now,” he said. “Enforcement is pretty good now, they walk through the building.”

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