(Oct. 16, 2020) Ocean City’s zoning and non-conformity regulations have been both a blessing and a curse, according to Councilman Dennis Dare.
As he explains in his white paper, city officials, along with the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) and the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission, conducted a comprehensive rezoning of the downtown area in 2002.
This rezoning resulted in overlay districts and pyramidal zoning becoming the new norm for the area.
“Zoning is a tool that local governments use to set the rules for development,” Dare said. “We have pyramidal zoning in Ocean City and like a lot of things it’s a two-edged sword.”
Pyramidal zoning assigns levels of preference to each zone. A factory, for instance, would be zoned industrial, while a townhouse project might fall under the multi-family, or R2, designation. But because R2 is preferred over industrial, an R2 project can be built in a less preferred district like industrial, but not the other way around.
While this makes development rather simple, Dare said it can lead to conflicts.
“[Say] you have a commercial zone and you have a hardware store there and next door they built condominiums, which is residential,” Dare said. “But then the hardware store sells and becomes a restaurant with outdoor dining and … everybody in the condominium complains about the activity.”
This is somewhat addressed through the overlay districting, but Dare said more needs to be done.
Nonconformity presents its own set of challenges.
Nonconformity is essentially when the government allows a property to maintain its property under the same conditions that it was built under, and not adhere to current code regulations.
“The fear was if you had a hotel with 50 rooms — and no parking places — burn to the ground, the new zoning code required that you had one parking spot for every room,” Dare said. “Well, if your hotel went property line to property line, there’s no space to put those parking spaces.”
Although its original intent was to allow devastated properties to be rebuilt after catastrophic events, nonconformity’s interpretation became looser, Dare said, and was applied to redevelopment in general.
“The good news is that it allowed for redevelopment, but the bad news is that it wasn’t necessarily good for the end users,” Dare said.
He recalled when a property on the Boardwalk had been purchased, but it was shy 20 parking spaces needed under the code.
“They got that [parking nonconformity] certified by the town,” Dare said. “Then they tore down the existing property and built a hotel and the hotel didn’t provide those 20 parking spaces because it was nonconformity.”
This created issues down the road, as guests became irate with the lack of parking. To solve this, the hotel bought an adjacent property and converted it into a parking lot.
One solution Dare presents in his white paper is a fee-in-lieu-of-parking program, where any nonconforming redevelopment would have to pay to provide for public parking elsewhere, such as a parking garage.
However, Dare said he did not have many answers to offer, rather he wished to see city officials, the development corporation and the planning and zoning commission to meet once more and take a comprehensive look at the city’s zoning code.
“I cannot remember since I’ve been on the council, eight years, that the mayor and council sat down with the Ocean City Development Corporation to discuss issues, and the same is true with the planning commission” Dare said.