Planning Commission asks numerous safety questions about new rental business
(March 8, 2019) Despite some safety concerns, the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission approved a conditional use request this week from Fun Boat Rentals to operate three mini-power boats near the inlet on 700 S. Philadelphia Avenue.
The Planning Commission voted 5-1 in favor of the proposal from applicant David Whitley, with Chairwoman Pam Buckley opposed and Secretary Peck Miller absent, during its meeting on Tuesday.
Zoning Administrator Frank Hall said the parcel, which is located on the south side of Sunset Park, had previously been under development for a restaurant concept.
Hall said the current site plan includes 32 parking spaces, with the new water-related business required to provide one spot for every two boats, which is comparable to regulations for personal watercraft.
“Should the restaurant site ever develop, it will have to be parked fully for both uses,” he said.
Hall also said one letter opposing the plan had been submitted earlier that day by Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastal Trust executive director.
Buckley said the letter from Assateague Coastal Trust requests for more time to review the site for potential environmental impacts.
Representing the applicant was attorney Pete Cosby, who told the commission Fun Boat Rentals plans to offer mini-power boats designed for two persons, which are powered by 15-horsepower outboard motors and have maximum speeds below 25 mph.
Whitley said the outboard motor propellers would be protected by a metal shield and characterized the vessels as safer than Jet Skis for users.
“A Jet Ski at 60 mph, you can be thrown off it,” he said. “These little boats at 20 mph, it’s going to be hard to be thrown out.”
Cosby said the initial request for three boats could be expanded in the future.
“Right now, with three boats, you’re just getting started and want to see how it works,” he said.
Whitley said because of manufacturing schedules, the boats would not arrive until June and would only be rented to persons 18 or older with a drivers’ license and cell phone.
Passengers must be at least 12 years old.
Although planning to acquire his own 25-horsepower rescue boat, Whitley said he would coordinate with an adjacent marina in the interim to have access to their equipment if a water-based emergency arises.
Commission member Lauren Taylor asked if those arrangements are finalized.
“Do you have a contact with them right now, because that’s a liability issue,” she said.
Cosby suggested that detail could be added to the conditional use permit if deemed necessary.
Commission member Palmer Gillis asked if a renter would need a boater safety card to operatre the boats.
“We don’t think they’re required by law for one-time users,” Cosby said.
Gillis said since numerous tourists do not possess boater safety cards, which are required for those born after 1972, sending people out on the water unaccompanied is concerning.
“I’ve been through that channel in a 19-foot boat and it scares me because the currents are so powerful,” he said. “You’ve got to compete with these big boats that are going through the channel.”
Buckley said the proposal appears to lack proper planning and raised major water safety concerns.
“It’s a very difficult spot to navigate without having an experienced person with you,” she said.
The lack of a dedicated rescue boat was another point of contention Buckley raised.
“Another operation is not going to be as attentive to your people and your business,” she said.
Commission member Joe Wilson concurred with those sentiments.
“I would feel a lot more comfortable from a safety perspective if a rescue boat was on this site,” he said.
Commission member Chris Shanahan proposed including a recommendation to require mandatory life-jackets, threaded cut-off switch and limiting users to waters south of the location.
“I would have a lot more confidence supporting it if these boats had been battle tested in the waters around where they are going to be used,” he said. “I have a 28-foot boat and I drive through that inlet … and I’m rocking.”
Included in the Planning Commission favorable recommendation were the following conditions: limiting business to daylight hours, mandatory use of life-jackets, threaded connection to a cutoff switch, restricting navigation to waters south of the location and having a dedicated rescue boat on site.
The conditional use request will next head to the mayor and City Council for final approval.
In closing, Hall shared his own misgivings about the venture.
“I’m surprised that you have zero time in one of these boats, and as zoning administrator, that concerns me for life safety issues,” he said.