Ocean City Today
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Planning com. kills reference in draft plan

Neville: strengthen existing zoning code
By Katie Tabeling | Nov 09, 2017

(Nov. 10, 2017) All mention of the R-1A zoning district was scrubbed from the draft language of the comprehensive plan, but the Planning and Zoning Commission pledged to add more enforcement tools to keep short-term rentals under control in single-family neighborhoods.

Those tools would include definitions of short-term rentals, transitional houses and dormitories at a later date. During a well-attended meeting Tuesday night, Planning Director Bill Neville pointed out that officials could take several approaches, including strengthening the existing code.

“The issue today is that the housing rentals are administered under the business code. Right off the bat, we require properties to be licensed if they’re rented at any length of time,” he said. “Business use is not permitted in R-1 [districts], so that’s something we could straighten out and make work for everyone.”

The R-1A district was proposed in 2015, when Mallard Island residents petitioned for the classification to stop weekly vacation rentals from operating in their neighborhood. Instead, the council decided to tighten existing restrictions on R-1 single-family home, like implementing a new licensing procedure and conducting an annual informational meeting for seasonal landlords.

If the R-1A zone were to be created, neighborhoods would have to agree unanimously to be re-zoned, a procedure Neville thought had flaws since it could not be controlled by the commission.

“I’m concerned if you do that, you’re never going to get the property owners to sign on. Seven property owners can’t rezone their eighth neighbor without their permission,” he said.

Roughly five percent Ocean City’s 30,000 housing units is used for single-family residences, Neville said. There are 348 rental licenses in the R-1 district overall.

“That means that there’s 348 neighbors on either side of those properties that are affected,” Commission member Lauren Taylor said. “The problem with enforcement is it’s after the fact. As one letter I received said, ‘you still see a naked man run across your lawn.’ You can call police in the morning, but it doesn’t help in the moment, improve quality of life or maintain neighborhood stability.”

“But what about the people who want to rent their retirement home before they come here permanently,” said commission member Joe Wilson, who also serves on the Coastal Association of Realtors (CAR) Board of Directors. “That’s 20 percent of who rents here, and we’re stepping on their toes.”

Commission Chair Pam Buckley noted that enforcement did improve dramatically last summer, but time will tell if there was enough money in the resort’s budget to keep it up.

She also advocated for some compromise between the year-round residents and the seasonal rental business, as she saw the two were dependent on each other.

“I don’t think Ocean City can be Ocean City without people living here on a year-round basis. We depend on that seven percent to keep it a family resort, which brings people back,” she said. “I also believe we need that break from the tourists, but without them, we wouldn’t be able to afford living here.”

Commission member Palmer Gillis still pushed to implement R-1A in some form to give residents the means to determine the fate of their neighborhoods rather than watching it deteriorate.

“I’ve watched single-family neighborhoods in Salisbury become filled with student housing projects, and neighbors would leave, causing it to spiral down,” he said. “Then a huge student housing project would draw them away, leaving the houses as empty, rotting cavities in the community.

“The community is the glue that defines it,” he continued. “There are stranger things than neighborhoods coming together for this.”

However, a commission majority agreed that the potential of R-1A was too vague an idea at this point to include in the comprehensive plan, even with cursory mention in the document.

“The biggest thing needed is to come up with a definition for short-term rentals and to protect people living there and so people buying property know what they’re dealing with. The comprehensive plan is not going to give you guys relief,” Buckley said to the crowd of attendees.

“Your relief is going to come from people at the rental properties and Realtors abiding by the regulations and the residents calling in complaints,” she added. “It’s a balance of people that we need to consider, but people should be able to live in R-1 and not feel threatened.”

Responding to the commission’s decision, CAR Immediate Past President Don Bailey, a Salisbury Realtor, said, “We are happy to see the planning commission agree that the comprehensive plan is not the appropriate means of establishing a new zoning district, especially when there is not agreement on the specifics of R1A.

“The town has not formally established the definition of a short-term rental, nor have they ironed out how R1A will be implemented.

“There was a public comment made by a full-time resident who said CAR shouldn’t be involved in these discussions due to a lack of ‘skin in the game.’ He said only people who own properties in the R1 neighborhoods should be involved. There are, indeed, several members of CAR who own properties in the R1 neighborhoods … we would contend that the Realtors and affiliates who depend on Ocean City’s real estate market to support their families definitely have skin in this game.”

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