Love and hate offered for master plan changes in Ocean City

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OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Planning Board invited comment on the city’s master plan re-examination at a Wednesday, Oct. 3 meeting, held at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

The public meeting was the first time the planning board has permitted public input, but before any members of the public had a chance to speak, planning board member Marc Shuster read from a prepared statement.

Shuster said he asked to serve on the planning board because he felt he could put his 40 years of municipal planning experience to use. He said he had been a leader in the effort to define the proposed hospitality zone, and had done his best to “understand Ocean City,” finding some characteristics of the community positive and some not.

“This is the first time in my entire career in zoning,” he said, that a planning board was asked to take input from a “Realtor group and a Chamber of Commerce.” While their views were important, he said they should not be a driving force. Rather, the quality of life and ability for year-round residents to live comfortably should be considered, he said. “This potential increase in density and intensity must be countered by serious efforts to reduce them elsewhere in order to maintain a reasoned and reasonable balance, which serves the entire populace in its impacts: social, economic, physical and aesthetic,” Shuster said. He asked that the board take a “just and unbiased look at everything.”

William McMahon III, president of insurance and financial company, McMahon Agency, implored the board to stay with the base flood elevation plus 2 concept, which requires structures to built at two feet above base flood elevation. The idea is to reduce damage to a structure as a result of flooding.

McMahon said responsible communities like Ocean City could pay the price if they don’t take necessary precautions to prevent flood loss.

Resident Fred Hoffman said he felt planners had overlooked floor area ratio and were more concerned with “geometry than quality of life.”

Hoffman said he felt quality of life was more important than “materialistic gain,” a sentiment echoed by others.

“Does the land support the structure or does the structure diminish the community?” he asked. “In the end, what do we truly value?”

City planner Randy Scheule noted in the opening presentation that the planning board seeks to support the city’s family resort character while simultaneously encouraging actions that will enable and entice more year-round families.

Several speakers asked that the planning board do more to encourage families by offering more single-family neighborhoods. One resident suggested more one-story homes because older citizens can have trouble with stairs. Others, like Lee Ann Kampf, said her five-member family recently relocated to Ocean City from Valley Forge, Pa. because of the family atmosphere.  She was concerned, however, about zoning in her 15th Street and Bay Avenue neighborhood.

Apartments along Simpson Avenue between 16th and 18th streets, she said, should not be permitted. Planners had opted to change the zoning from single family to one that would also permit apartments at the behest of Councilman Keith Hartzell. As it stands now, the apartments are technically non-conforming and could not be rebuilt in the event of a catastrophe without a zoning change. Hartzell said the apartments were valuable for residents.

“I respectfully ask that you remove this,” said Kampf, adding that it was “quite a challenge” to find a single-family home.

“I’m not sure why apartments should be approved,” she said, when the surrounding area included single-family homes. “I understand the apartments fill a need, but shouldn’t the apartments be put in a neighborhood that supports them?”

She suggested that the city loses up to $30,000 in tax revenue because of the zoning.  

Alternatively, local Realtor Joe Scafario thanked the board for trying to help fix some neighborhoods with nonconforming properties, but implored them to do this island-wide as nonconforming properties are costly for those trying to rebuild.

Architect Edwin Howell commended Scheule and the board for “truly an astounding amount of work.”

He said he has been in business for 32 years and is also a licensed planner. He asked the board to consider a “grace period” to allow changes to take place as it often takes eight months or more, between the time a client sits down with an architect and the permits are secured, for construction to start. When changes come in the interim, it’s costly.

“Consider a grace period for these folks who have started the design process,” he said. “While you folks have been studying the plan, we have been working with our clients.”

Noting that the planning board’s recommendations would need an ordinance to go in effect, resident Jim Tweed said the “rubber hits the road” when the plan goes to City Council.

“Let’s just be honest, our goal is to maximize the resale price,” he said.

Tweed said that he was told by a developer upon expressing concern about development in his neighborhood that he should be “grateful” the neighboring homes were larger because it would increase the value of his home.

“What about the fact that the enjoyment of my home went down in the meantime?” he asked.

Resident Eric Sauder said the plan for the beach and dune zone – to change six residential properties in the zone to a conforming use – had not been discussed enough, as being able to “rebuild and expand” is a bad idea.

“I would like to see discussion of this thing,” he said.

Board Chairman John Loeper said a final public meeting on the master plan re-examination will be hosted 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Ocean City Free Public Library, 1735 Simpson Ave. The board will possibly vote to adopt the plan at this meeting.

The master plan serves as a basis for the city’s zoning ordinance. The re-examination report is essentially the planning board’s checklist of things that should be addressed or studied before the next master plan and development regulations.

The 74-page document guiding land use on the island is available online at the city’s website and has been discussed at numerous planning board and City Council meetings. The re-examination, mandated by state law, evaluates how well the current master plan and zoning regulations reflect current land use.

Adopted in 1988, the current comprehensive plan was last re-examined and amended in 2006.

To read Ocean City's master plan re-examination report, click here.

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