Large-scale J-1 student housing approvedPlanning Commission limits project to house 56 people that will work at Ropewalk
(April 21, 2017) In the first time in Ocean City history, a boarding house will be created with the goal of housing many international student workers while they work at resort businesses in the summertime.
Following an hour-long discussion, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a site plan to convert roughly 5,900 square feet of the 10,950-square-foot commercial space on 84th Street into a 15-room lodging house that would accommodate 56 student workers.
The preliminary plans called for 16-bedroom facility that would house 72 J-1 visa students, all of whom would work at the Ropewalk Restaurant on 82nd Street this summer. Four students would be put in a bedroom, each sized at 160 square feet with closet space, which is accordance to Ocean City’s building code. Few of the bedrooms would have windows, but the building would have a sprinkler system.
Some commission members had reservations on the final project.
“Prison cells have more amenities than this,” Commission member Palmer Gillis told Chris Reda, the Ropewalk owner and site plan applicant. “I have a hard time seeing four people living in rooms like this.”
Under the code requirements for boarding houses, city Planning and Zoning Director Bill Neville told the commission a minimum of 275 square feet is needed for public space. This boarding house exceeded that requirement with 277 square feet for common space area and a 175-square foot dining area.
There is no maximum requirement for public space for boarding houses, something that concerned Chairwoman Pam Buckley.
“In the future, I want it in the books that when it exceeds over 50 people, there needs to be ‘X’ amount of space for common areas,” she said.
Commission member Lauren Taylor pointed out that the J-1 student’s experience is different than the typical Ocean City resident.
“International space is generally smaller than what we’re used to culturally,” Taylor said.
In addition to the living space, the house would have eight toilets, sinks and showers, divided between the women’s and men’s bathrooms. Two resident managers would also live with the students, at the city staff’s recommendation. Neville noted that the most successful workforce housing has residential managers involved.
“God help us, if they’re going to be cooking in the rooms. That’s where management is going to be huge,” Buckley said.
The United Work & Travel Program, which is sponsoring the Ropewalk student workers, supported the housing development. Local program coordinator Jason D’Amore saw it as a way that would guarantee a bed for each student, instead of having two students share a bed during shifts.
“I’m excited to hear that an employer is willing to take a chance to make a positive change to help with this need,” D’Amore said. “We will have each student look at a floor plan before agreeing to come here to work in the future.”
Some on the commission supported the lodging house, but Taylor and Commission Member Chris Shanahan asked if there was a way to reduce the impact of the building, as it would be located close to residential neighborhoods. Taylor suggested a curfew to curb the nighttime noise and Shanahan recommended placing three people to a room.
Commission Secretary Peck Miller, however, said that this plan is better than some of the other options available to some summer workers.
“I do know that most employee housing is deplorable, and we need to have something like this. Four people to a room is not perhaps wonderful, but it’s a lot better than what’s available now,” he said.
After the discussion, Shanahan moved to approve the site plan for 15 bedrooms, 14 of which would house 56 J-1 visa students and one to house the two residential assistants. Other conditions on the site plan included a 10 p.m. curfew for the residents with the intent to curb outdoor activities at night. The curfew would not apply to students returning to the house after a late-night shift.
The commission also stipulated that the units can only be rented from April 1 to Oct. 1 to ensure that the structure’s purpose is for summer workers.
The site plan can come back to the Planning and Zoning Commission after the summer to consider if the remaining four bedrooms be built. At that time, commission members will review what, if any, complaints were made on that property.
The motion passed 4-1, with Gillis dissenting and Miller abstaining.
“This is an important project because it’s going to be the poster child for future projects like it,” Shanahan said. “We want to make sure we’re off on the right foot.”
The project is slated to be completed by June 15, as the J-1 visa students who will work at the Ropewalk are expected to arrive at that time.