Ocean City Today

West OC wants more rental regs

County administrator says controlling short-term units will require long-term effort
By Katie Tabeling | Nov 02, 2017
County Administrator Harold Higgins tells the West Ocean City Association what they can expect in the coming years in regarding a revamped rental permit system during the Oct. 26 meeting.

(Nov. 3, 2017) The debate about the location of short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods has spread to West Ocean City, and Worcester County Administrator Harold Higgins said lax regulation of rentals there is in his sights.

Still, controlling the situation will take a long-term strategy, he told members of the West Ocean City Association that gathered last Thursday at the Lions Club Den on Airport Road.

Higgins added that he plans to revamp the permit system that allows landlords to rent houses in residential neighborhoods, since an influx of J-1 visa students have moved across the bridge.

Approximately 345 J-1 visa students rented in West Ocean City last summer, as affordable housing in the resort is scarce.

One of the ideas Higgins advocated is implementing a flat fee on the “tourism permit,” which is required for rentals to four or more people for less than six months.

“Right now, [the fee] is reported on a honor system. They tell us what they rent, and we’re supposed to collect a percent out of that,” Higgins said. “I’m trying to be clear — the county was not set up to assume a rental market. Things have changed. The only way I’ll get there is to make it a budgetary item and start appropriating money.”

The county’s rules governing occupancy rates for rentals vary according to the zoning designation. Some zoning designations allow for four boarders or a “family unit” or up to five “unrelated boarders,” but fire codes and the health department have other rules.

The county system also operates on a complaint basis, similar to enforcement procedures in Ocean City. But a key difference is that Ocean City, where rental units must have a license, requires inspections of short-term rental properties in single-family neighborhoods before the license is renewed. In addition, the inspection verifies a property’s maximum occupancy.

In Ocean City, unlicensed renters are fined $500 immediately. If the property owner does not comply within 15 days, that fine doubles. After 30 days, that $1,000 fine becomes daily.

Kevin Brown, the resort’s chief building inspector and West Ocean City resident, reported that he collected roughly $40,000 in fines last year.

“In our program, any violation found, licenses can be revoked the following year,” Brown said. “We’re holding the licenses and do inspections before re-issuing it. If that property has any other violations that season, we can suspend it. You have to add these layers in.”

No inspection is required with the county’s tourism permit. Penalties for violations, Higgins said, included sending a cease and desist order. Inspections, based on overcrowding complaints, have to be done with the tenant’s consent or if officials deem it a safety hazard.

“The county commissioners are going to have to make some hard decisions, because now I have to provide resources to Review and Planning,” he said. “We need inspectors, and to control your costs, we need to create a license fee environment.”

Higgins also stressed that the new system would be a way to ensure that J-1 visa student accommodations are safe.

“I’m more concerned about the kids. I don’t like bullies, bad business owners and people who take advantage of the students,” he said. “I don’t take it lightly and we’ll do whatever we can with the arsenal that we have. But the real change will be the fee system. If it affects their pocketbook, they’re going to have to comply because they can’t afford it.”

Commissioner Bud Church told the association that he will devote whatever resources he has available, as a county official and as a Realtor, to resolve the issue.

“As a Realtor, I have connections all over the country, so I can find out what other people have done. I also asked the sheriff to start documenting calls out to certain properties to see where the issues are,” Church said. “With a little energy and effort, I think we’ll get this resolved sooner than [Higgins] thinks.”

Higgins and other county employees will be working on a rental fee structure when the budget process starts in December. In the meantime, West Ocean City residents are asked to call the county commissioner’s office with any information or complaints at 410-632-1194.

Residents are also advised to write letters to the county commissioners detailing their experience with the West Ocean City summer rentals. They also can comment at budget hearings in the spring.

West Ocean City Association President Michael Maykrantz summed up both the county’s and the residents’ perspective on the influx of the seasonal rentals.

“It’s a sign that the community is growing, but these are the issues that come with it,” he said. “It’s really grown over the last year. First the [J-1 visa students were commuting out here, now they’re moving. The county’s aggressive about this, so call them and it’ll start the process while we wait for policy to develop.”

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