Ocean City Today

Defining short-term rentals tops P&Z 2018 priority list

Limiting accessory uses for residentially-zoned regions within legal limits intent
By Greg Ellison | Feb 08, 2018

(Feb. 9, 2018) Establishing a precise definition for short-term rentals, and specifying the accessory uses permitted in R-1 zone neighborhoods, dominated the Planning and Zoning Commission discussion Tuesday, as the commission continued its updates of the resort’s comprehensive plan.

Planning Director Bill Neville said the City Council has scheduled a public hearing about the comprehensive plan updates for its Feb. 20 meeting. The planning and zoning commission voted on Dec. 2 to forward the final plan revisions to the council.

“The council has the power for minor edits with a motion,” he said. “Any substantial changes to policy would have to be sent back to the planning and zoning commission.”

After receiving the planning and zoning commission’s final revisions, the council has 90 days to review plan revisions and schedule either a work session or public hearing before deciding to adopt, revise or remand the update back to the commission for additional changes.

The present plan was drafted in 2006 and last updated in 2009, with the current review intended to comply with state requirements.

When Neville presented the latest comprehensive plan revisions during a council meeting on Dec. 12, he said defining short-term rentals topped the commission’s list of priorities for 2018.

“The conclusion was it’s important to work on a definition of short-term rentals,” he said.

That conclusion was based on complaints from residents of single-family home neighborhoods that weekly rentals were upsetting the tranquility they thought they bought into when they acquired homes in R-1 zones.

Neville said, however, that other feedback from residents concerned the potential loss of property rights, and recommended that the commission consult with its attorney before it commits to anything in writing.

“We don’t want to come forward with a proposed definition of short-term rentals and have it seem like we’re taking something away,” he said.

Neville suggested the commission examine what property uses are permitted in R-1, R-2A and MH zoning districts.

“Transient residents are not a permitted use in R-1 districts,” he said. “Basically, people are using properties for short-term rentals in zoning districts where they are not permitted.”

Worcester County defines any rental of less than four months and one day as a transient use.

“We need to come up with another solution,” he said. “We have to identify the right benchmark for Ocean City.”

Based on area market forces, Neville said the county standard could be ratcheted down to a month or week.

“We have a conflict in zoning ordinances right now,” he said. “We are looking for what seems reasonable for the community as a whole.”

Commission member Lauren Taylor said in the past fewer properties were rented and people were more likely to have prior dealings.

“Now we’ve gotten into Airbnb where it’s just total strangers and they don’t care about the neighborhood,” she said.

Commission Secretary Peck Miller noted Ocean City’s unique environment necessitates varying zoning districts.

“If we don’t protect them, it’s going to be a mess,” he said. “You don’t want commercial businesses in the R-1 district. There is a reason you have R-1 … and it’s not for commerce.”

Neville suggested first obtaining a legal opinion from in-house counsel before attempting to define what constitutes short-term rentals.

Miller said understanding what legal remedies are available should be the next step.

“I think we need the definition [for short-term rentals] first,” he said. “We have to know what our parameters are.”

Some states have elected to usurp local control to define and regulate short-term rentals to avoid a patchwork approach, Neville said.

“That hasn’t happened in Maryland yet,” he said. “Right now, it’s being figured out at the local level.”

Ultimately, clearly defined regulations are essential to maintain proper zoning codes, Neville said.

“The more we try to ramp up on the enforcement side, we need to make sure codes are strong and enforceable,” he said.

Neville also said a precise definition of what constitutes dormitory housing is also being sought before the next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on Feb. 21.

“I don’t think any of our definitions, except housing, are that defined,” Miller said.

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