Ocean City Today

Special event zone bill goes to committee

Ocean City officials testify on need for strict approach
By Greg Ellison | Mar 08, 2018

(March 9, 2018) Seeking ways to discourage reckless behavior during this season’s annual car and motorcycle rallies, Ocean City is lobbying the state to pass emergency legislation that would create special event zones to help police to maintain order in the streets and adjacent areas.

After testifying in support of SB872 last Tuesday, Ocean City officials returned on Friday to state the case for HB1406 during a House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing.

Sen. Jim Mathias (D-38) and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) are sponsoring companion bills that would permit the State Highway Administration to designate roads under its purview as special event zones that have reduced speed limits and increased penalties for motor vehicle violations.

Upon passage, the emergency bill would be sent to Gov. Larry Hogan to sign into law before the car and bike event season begins.

“HB1406 would give our local law enforcement the additional tools they need to control the unlawful, reckless and dangerous behavior that Ocean City and the surrounding area has experienced with certain major motor events,” Carozza said.

During Senate testimony, Mathias said the new designation would be similar to construction zones or school zones in that it would provide for substantially higher fines and potential jail sentences for drivers who threaten public safety.

The bill would prohibit reckless driving, racing, burning rubber and making excessive noise in areas where pedestrians gather near highways.

Under the proposed legislation, the most egregious violators could be fined up to $1,000 and face up to one year in jail, with a potential two years of incarceration for subsequent offenses.

Drivers engaging in prohibited behaviors that cause bodily harm to pedestrians would face up to three years in jail and fines up to $5,000. If a pedestrian is killed, drivers could be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years and fined up to $5,000.

Echoing his earlier senate testimony, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan told the House committee the legislative approach was devised by a 27-member Motor Events Task Force formed in response to mayhem that ensued during automobile events last fall.

Meehan said the Cruisin’ Ocean City event started a few decades ago with a couple hundred participants, and is now capped at 3,200 registrations.

“That event has grown and also helped us develop the shoulder season,” he said.

Problems have escalated as the number of attendees has also grown exponentially, Meehan said.

“Those vehicles don’t have the same ties to the event,” he said. “They don’t show the same respect for our community and refer to Coastal Highway as ‘the strip.’”

In more recent years, further problems grew from the unsanctioned H20i event, which is largely promoted through social media, Meehan said.

“We have one that occurs in the fall season where thousands of vehicles come to Ocean City that are not welcome,” he said. “They are not invited … and create public safety problems for other vehicles, residents, citizens and our police department.”

Although under the proposed legislation, maximum fines can reach the four-digit range, Meehan said in most cases a more moderate range is likely.

“This would give us the ability to reduce speed limits and double fines,” he said. “The purpose is to mitigate problems before they start.”

Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said despite having the help of other law enforcement agencies, the motorized events continue to strain his department’s resources.

“We are finding it increasingly difficult to address these very brazen, disrespectful and unlawful behaviors taking place on our roadways,” he said.

Worcester County Sheriff Lt. Ed Schreier told the committee traffic safety directly affects public safety.

“People in unprecedented numbers line the streets of Ocean City to witness these car events,” he said.

Schreier said the bill would allow officers discretion in addressing the most egregious behaviors.

“Statistics have shown that citations directly improve our chances … of getting [people] to stop the illegal behavior,” he said.

Also testifying from the Motor Events Task Force was TEAM Productions Bob Rothermel, who organizes the Cruisin’ events and said he fully supports the legislation.

Rothermel said 3,200 cars are once again registered for this years Cruisin Ocean City event, which is scheduled for May 17-20.

“We estimate there’s another 5,000 cars that we have no control over,” he said.

Based on social media feedback, Rothermel said most registered participants are on board with the proposed legislation.

“If this causes some people not to come to Ocean City, so be it,” he said. “It will be safe because of what this legislation does.”

G. Hale Harrison, vice president of operations with Harrison Group Resort Hotels, said the events have economic merit.

“We value and welcome the attendees who respect our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are some who don’t.”

Delegate Herb McMillan (R-30A) questioned the measure’s provision of jail sentences for traffic violations.

“I’m not saying the penalties are wrong,” he said. “Usually in this committee, where we handle traffic violations, we don’t get into 10 years in prison or fines of this magnitude.”

McMillian asked if other committees, potentially judiciary, should be consulted.

“I certainly appreciate the rationale behind the bill, but sometimes hard cases make for bad laws,” he said.

Carozza said, in addition to Ocean City officials, the Worcester County Commissioners, the sheriff’s department and the state’s attorney’s office support the measure.

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