(Sept. 14, 2018) Bayshore Drive residents packed a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last Wednesday to oppose a rezoning request for a 10,000-square-foot neighborhood shopping center proposed for the southwest corner of 26th Street and Philadelphia Avenue.
Planning Director Bill Neville said the property’s owner, Ocean Harbor Holdings LLC, is requesting to rezone a roughly one-third acre parcel from R-2 medium density residential to LC-1 local commercial.
“This would be a continuation of the development of the approved site plan for the Fairfield Inn,” he said. “This is an area that has assembled a number of individual tax parcels into a development plan.”
Neville said the request, which was filed Aug. 13, would alter a site plan approved in September 2013 for a trio of parcels at 2501 Philadelphia Avenue, originally slated for a townhome development.
“This is a change to a phased development and it’s one step in a longer process,” he said. “The proposed 10,000-square-foot shopping center would need to be approved through a revision of the site plan.”
The parcel’s zoning classifications were a mix of R-2 and LC-1, an issue which Neville said the Planning Commission considered during a public hearing last fall.
“They asked to have entire parcel considered as a single land use,” he said. “The Planning Commission recommended the change be made and sent it to the mayor and City Council in December 2017.”
Following this, Neville said the council held public hearings prior to approval of the comprehensive plan update in March.
“Staff review found the [request] consistent with the comprehensive plan,” he said.
Under Maryland law, Neville said municipalities can approve rezoning requests, but are required to prove the previous classification was made in error or the neighborhood’s character has changed.
While LC-1 zones are open to most retail establishments, Neville said R-2 zones would permit either hotels, such as the Fairfield Inn, or businesses and shopping centers smaller than 40,000 square feet.
“The scenario of it all being under a common development plan was very important to the consideration during the land use review at the comprehensive plan stage,” he said.
Attorney Joe Moore, representing Ocean Harbor Holdings, said the area was once the site of the Misty Harbor Motel.
“The property was divided by lot lines,” he said. “The intention is to alleviate all the interconnected elements in site plan approval because of previous concurrent use.”
The request would revise a portion of the parcel which borders 26th Street to LC-1 zoning.
Although the parcel is zoned LC-1 up to 155 feet off Coastal Highway, Moore said the request would alter an additional 123 feet, currently zoned R-2.
“A shopping center is allowed, it’s just a question of a strip center or what you have several renderings of ... which we feel is a better use,” he said.
Bayshore Drive resident John Simcox told the Planning Commission that red flags went up for him after he learned of the proposed center.
“Traffic leading onto 26th Street will increase [and] make backups at the light longer,” he said.
Simcox was also dismayed by lack of official city notification of residents nearby.
“I did see a sign on the edge of the property and called the Planning and Zoning office for details as the sign suggested,” he said.
Simcox said planning officials explained the rezoning request was based on a change in the neighborhood, with more details to be provided at that evening’s meeting.
On Aug. 29, Simcox asked for postponement of the rezoning meeting, which the city denied.
“We did ask for additional information and time to consider it,” he said. “There is too little information to expect residents to present an effective rebuttal.”
In addition to noting Maryland law has exacting evidence standards to support rezoning applications, Simcox said the lack of transparency in terms of supporting documentation could prove a deterrent for home buyers in the future.
“Why would we want to invest our hard-earned money in a neighborhood where there can be a radical change without notice or opportunity to understand the case before tonight?” he said.
Simcox also said the burden of proof in such arguments is on the applicant.
“They must prove not only substantial change in the neighborhood, but all of the previous uses under the current zone, R-2, are untenable,” he said. “Applying the change rules to the facts in this case this rezoning request must be denied for failure of proof on the requisite elements.”
Simcox also said the proposal would place commercial development directly across from single-family homes on 26th Street.
“They didn’t talk to [residents] in Bayshore about the need for a neighborhood shopping center,” he said. “We understand it’s not going to be an empty lot forever … [but there] was no outreach whatsoever.”
While describing the Fairfield Inn as an improvement to the location, Simcox said the rezoning application lacks details on the businesses proposed for the shopping center.
Brook Rodgers, a Bayshore Drive resident for more than four decades, noted traffic concerns were shared by many in that neighborhood.
“We already have traffic into the Fairfield Inn by way of 26th Street, as well as [potentially] additional traffic going into and out of the proposed shopping center,” he said.
“There are not many neighborhoods like ours in Ocean City,” he added. “We have never … had a business facing one of our streets on the interior of the neighborhood … it’s unprecedented.”
Commission Chairwoman Pam Buckley said the front portion of the parcel that is zoned LC-1 would already allow the proposed shopping center, with the rear section zoned R-2 also permitted for associated parking.
“That’s an R2 zone and we can put a parking lot in there with conditions [and] that’s what they’re proposing,” she said. “We can’t tell somebody they can’t use their property.”
Buckley also noted the R-2 zone, albeit residential, allows for a higher density than R-1 single-family districts.
“You could tear down your house and build 2-4 units there depending on the size of the property,” she said.
Rodgers said regardless of density levels, the larger apprehension centers on altering the character of the Bayshore Drive area.
“I would like what is zoned residential to stay residential,” he said.
Moore, while reiterating the site plan was previously approved and the only matter at question was extending the LC-1 zoning an addition 123 feet, changed the rezoning request from permanent to conditional use based on resident feedback that evening.
“We hear the neighbors’ concerns and … we request this be considered as a conditional rezoning,” he said.
With all voices heard after two plus hours, the Planning Commission closed the public hearing and voted to deliberate to reach a decision at its next meeting on Sept. 18.