Ocean City Today

Time to move on from single-family districts?

Oct 19, 2017



printed 10/20/2017


The central question pending in local government, as it considers the possibility of excluding short-term rentals in some single-family housing districts, is whether Ocean City needs traditional neighborhoods anymore.

The absence of facts and the abundance of opinion employed in this discussion obscure this essential issue, as local Realtors advocate allowing the incorporation of weekly rentals into the single-family neighborhood mix, and residents who paid for the sense of community their neighborhoods provided don’t want to lose it.

The dearth of any real research of the subject and differing assumptions within its own membership are probably why the National Association of Realtors has taken no position on what has become a debate in cities and states across the country.

The only thing researchers do seem to agree on is that no one knows with certainty whether property values would go up or down if short-term rentals were to be permitted in R1 single-family home districts.

Similarly, no one knows what the economic impact would be if some of these neighborhoods — roughly 10 percent of the local housing market — were granted the more exclusionary R1-A zoning designation that has been proposed. It’s also anyone’s guess whether home prices might increase in this instance as well because of the protected status that level of zoning would impose.

The property rights argument raised by advocates of single-family short-term rental properties is flawed as well. Absolute property rights vanished a century ago in this country with the advent of zoning, and have been further diluted by the seemingly never-ending flow of land use regulations imposed on private property for “the common good.”

Were this not so, property owners would have the right to raise chickens in their yards, erect tall privacy fences, cut down all their trees, pave their land and run any kind of home occupation they wanted as long they did not physically affect neighboring properties.

The argument over the proposed R1-A zone and the opposition to it, however, is fundamental.

The real estate industry wants to sell property and that’s easier if the rental income a home produces helps pay the mortgage. Meanwhile, year-round residents who bought homes in Ocean City’s traditional single-family neighborhoods did so because they were conveniently located, while also  offering a retreat from vacationers, some of whom aren’t as respectful of the community as the people who live in it.

Thus, local government’s choice is whether to side with an industry that generates much of the area’s economic activity or to preserve what little remains of the traditional neighborhoods, where business owners, operators and employees once escaped to at the end of the working day.

The future of R1 zones and their year-round populations in Ocean City is uncertain. The transience of weekly rental customers and the already vanishing sense of community these neighborhoods once fostered aren’t destined to coexist over the long term.

Maybe it is time to move on and let Ocean City be whatever it wants to be, as residents of these single-family enclaves join the continuing outward trickle of population that has gone to quieter areas, with lower taxes.

That’s what Ocean City government must decide. Good luck with that.

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