(Nov. 23, 2018) Seeking an improved view along Baltimore Avenue between North Division Street and 15th Street, the Ocean City Council last Tuesday directed staff to solicit pricing to remove utility poles and to relocate transmission lines underground.
City Engineer Terry McGean told the council a substantial unimproved right of way exists along the stretch of Baltimore Avenue, outside of the state highway owned roadway.
“State highway does have the ownership of the right of way from curb to curb,” he said.
In addition, McGean said the town owns a 44-foot unimproved right of way incorporating sidewalk and adjacent properties, and transitions from the west to east side of Baltimore Avenue from North Division Street to Fifth Street.
“From North Division to Ninth Street, we have two five-foot sidewalks and three northbound travel lanes,” he said. “From Ninth to 15th, we have two five-foot sidewalks, two northbound travel lanes and one parking lane.”
Despite discussions about improving the roughly 15-block area, McGean said above-ground utilities on both sides of the street have stymied upgrades.
“As long as those utility poles are there, there isn’t a whole lot you can do particularly on the west side of the street,” he said.
McGean said among the improvements discussed by staff were widening sidewalks, installing utility strips, landscape setbacks, burying utilities, changing the Route 50 access to Second Street, and potentially transferring any unused portion of right of way back to property owners.
“Because we have that additional right of way in that North Division to Fourth Street area, that’s actually on the west side of Baltimore Avenue, it gives you the possibility of adding in turning lanes,” he said.
Among the two options McGean highlighted for the council was leaving utility lines above ground.
“Utilities stay where they are and the sidewalk on the west side stays at five-feet wide,” he said. “On the east side, we put in a utility strip where the utility pole is, and we could put in a sidewalk essentially as wide as you want it, [but] we think eight-foot is a very comfortable width.”
This scenario would leave roughly two-dozen feet of unimproved right of way that could be given back to the adjacent property owners, McGean said.
The other alternative reviewed would place utility lines underground, which McGean said would leave about 19-feet of unimproved right of way.
“Obviously, the elephant in the room is do you want to underground the utilities or not?” he said.
McGean said nailing down costs from utility companies, including Delmarva Power, Verizon and Comcast, has been a problem.
“They don’t want to do the estimate unless we pay them to do the estimate,” he said.
Regardless, McGean said the project would run into the millions of dollars.
Councilman Lloyd Martin asked about a state highway proposal to replace the majority of sidewalks in question.
McGean said it could prove financially advantageous if the city could provide state highway a clear direction on the direction of improvements.
“Then we can work with them to hopefully fund a lot of it,” he said.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the right of way was uncovered about 10 years ago when the city hired a consultant to research the original right of way property monuments from the late 1800s.
The field engineering project identified a 75-foot right of way that was platted by the Sinepuxent Beach Company back when the town ended at North Division Street.
“They were proposing building more lots heading north in the late 1800s,” he said.
Since that era, Adkins said the right of way has been taken up by front yards, porches, landscaping hedges, dumpster pads, and street signs.
Councilman Dennis Dare, although acknowledging the exorbitant costs involved, said the city has a rare opportunity to enhance the narrow road.
“This is one of those things you just get that one chance to do it, so you want to do it right,” he said.
Dare also noted the city made similar improvements south of North Division Street on Baltimore Street and Philadelphia Avenue in the early 1990s.
“The downtown section there has a whole different feel,” he said. “The idea was those properties would improve and their value would go up.”
True to plan, Dare said property values did rise over time.
“The increased value from property taxes … more than paid for borrowing the money to do the underground utilities,” he said. “You have that chance here to bring that same value to the adjacent properties along Baltimore Avenue.”
Adkins said when comparable work was completed south of North Division Street in 1991, it became apparent that utility poles frame the line of vision while driving.
“The minute we pulled the poles ... it became evident that your line of vision became more expansive and wide open,” he said.
The council voted unanimously for Adkins and McGean to contact Delmarva Power, Verizon and Comcast regarding the cost to conduct a pricing study.