Ocean City Today

Planning Commission digs for housing size standards

By Greg Ellison | Dec 21, 2017
Courtesy of: Frank Hall Site plan for redevelopment project at 16 Baltimore Avenue which was approved during the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on Tuesday.

(Dec. 22, 2017) Establishing minimum space requirements for seasonal employee housing dominated the discussion of a site plan for a redevelopment project at 16 Baltimore Avenue that was presented for approval to the Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday.

The mixed-use project plans call for a four-story structure with 1,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and three floors of housing for 52 total employees.

Lorenda Birch, who also operates the adjacent Rideau Motor Inn, owns the property. Presenting her case was attorney Joseph Moore, who said after reviewing the city’s’ comprehensive plan, and recently proposed updates that both versions stress the need for housing for seasonal workers.

“This is what the comprehensive plan envisions,” he said. “Student housing above and commercial on the first floor.”

From previous experience with other redevelopment projects, Moore said the need for adequate, updated housing is clear and praised the architectural plans created by MAD Design president Harry How III.

“Harry has designed what are virtually bedrooms and apartments,” he said. “They have all of the amenities which many existing student housing locations don’t have in Ocean City.”

The project received funding from the Maryland Department of Community and Housing Development with assistance from the Ocean City Development Corporation, whose Executive Director Glenn Irwin became involved after learning the site needed updating.

“The building was not habitable for at least a year and that’s what got us involved,” he said. “This is the fourth project we’ve pursued strategic demolition monies for and received.”

Highlighting several concerns related to the expanded housing, including on-site management, commission member Peck Miller attempted to elicit a precise definition.

“This is classified as employee housing, a boardinghouse [or] what?” he said.

Zoning Administrator Frank Hall admitted that was a difficult question to answer.

“We are playing with that definition at the moment,” he said.

Miller inquired if a boardinghouse designation altered required space allocations for employees.

“I didn’t do those calculations,” Miller said. “I looked at it as employee housing.”

Lacking clarity regarding the definition of employee housing and property management oversight, Miller expressed reluctance to approve the plan.

“We need employee housing, but I think before we start voting on these we need to know what it is,” he said. “There’s a big difference between a boardinghouse and employee housing … [and] I’m not sure that these aren’t all boardinghouses.”

While acknowledging the commission has previously discussed improving the definition of employee housing, Miller said he classified this project as employee housing based on recent project precedents.

“We’ve worked with the applicants, and in the motions made that it is to be for employee housing and not a boardinghouse, which locks it in,” he said. “If they change it to a boardinghouse, they have to come back.”

Commission Chairwoman Pam Buckley, while appreciating Miller’s concern, said housing needs still exist.

“We don’t have a strict guideline for this and we all know we need the housing, there’s no question. It’s just a matter of being consistent across the board,” she said.

Miller also raised concerns about a lack of on-site supervision for the more than four-dozen seasonal employees, generally young J-1 students, who would live at the location.

Moore had proposed Birch would essentially be on-site while operating the adjacent Rideau Motel.

“If that is the requirement that you would have, we’ll have that,” he said. “We can have on-site management.”

Commission member Palmer Gillis asked if the building could be converted to condominiums at some point.

Irwin said the housing units are designed as dormitories not apartments.

“To change a dormitory into a for-sale apartment or condo, you’d be ripping out the whole interior to make that work,” he said.

Buckley said she has learned to expect the unexpected during her time with planning and zoning.

“Oh, we’ve seen stranger things — this is Ocean City,” she said.

Although Gillis said he was impressed and planned to vote for approval, he had concerns about the square footage per person.

“Plywood comes in two sizes, 4 by 8 and 4 by 10, and you’re putting seven people in a 4 by 10 space,” he said. “I think when we’re rewriting this, some attention needs to be done with size allocations. That’s less than what a prison cell has.”

With those concerns left for future discussions, the commission voted to approve the site plan, contingent on three conditions:  24-hour on-site management; no condominium conversions, and 51 percent of employees housed must work for Birch or an associated business.


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