(July 24, 2020) Visitors and residents will be able to have an additional drive-in movie experience this Friday, after the Ocean City Council on Monday approved a temporary use permit request from Fox Sun & Surf Cinema on 143rd Street to allow it to screen films outdoors.
Under Gov. Larry Hogan’s covid-19 order, indoor movie theaters went dark and have stayed so since March.
Hogan would later allow drive-in theaters to operate, although such entities are not permitted under the resort’s zoning laws.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said Fox Sun & Surf Cinema had asked to convert its back parking lot into a drive-in movie space a few months back, but the request got sidestepped as the council and city staff tackled its June schedule.
Neville said the council had two options.
The first option would be to approve the request using the temporary use permit process developed earlier this summer to allow restaurants and bars serving food to expand outdoor seating.
The only issue with this, however, was that the temporary use permit had been designed specifically for those kinds of operations, so the council would have to decide if it could or wanted to expand the scope of the permit.
City legal counsel Heather Stansbury later said the decision involved no legal barriers.
“I think in many ways this is a similar situation [to restaurants and bars],” Neville said. “[It’s] use of a private property in the parking lot, it’s allowing commercial activity to occur and food and beverage is being proposed to be provided from within the building.”
The second option would be to go through the traditional conditional use permit process, which could take several months and would require a public hearing.
Neville said that although the district was commercially zoned, two residential buildings — a single-family home and a condominium — existed west of the theater on Sinepuxent Avenue.
Trees on the street would fully screen the single-family home from the project and the owners of those properties would be notified and provided with the theater manager’s contact information, Neville said.
Additionally, Neville said the Worcester County health officer and fire marshal’s office had given their preliminary support for the endeavor, and the Caine Wood’s Association had indicated some approval of it as well.
Sun & Surf, if allowed to proceed, would have to meet the following conditions — notification of the two adjacent property owners; temporary use until Dec. 31, or until Hogan lifted his restrictions; sound would be limited to individual vehicles via FM radio; onsite management must maintain trash cleanup and enforce separation criteria to limit groups of more than 10 people seated outside of personal vehicles; night parking lot security lighting when movies are not playing; any privacy fencing to be temporary only; and food service and restrooms available within the building for “ticket holder” use.
“I think at this point the exposure to noise, sound, light and activity in that back parking lot is fairly limited within the scope of that block,” Neville said.
The council supported the proposal, but had some concerns.
Councilwoman Mary Knight asked that all guests be required to wear facemasks when entering the facility, which would be open for bathroom use and snack purchases.
Theater Manager Andrew Seyler reassured Knight, that not only would guests be required to wear the masks indoors, as per Hogan’s order, aside from using the bathroom, guests would have no other reason to enter the facility, as snacks could be purchased via an app and be either picked up or delivered.
The app would further eliminate customer-staff contact, as it would serve as a space for ticket purchase and verification.
The next set of concerns came from Councilman Dennis Dare who, with the adjacent property owners in mind, worried about the noise level, how long movies would last and movie ratings.
As for noise, Seyler said all viewers would have to remain in their vehicles, where they would tune into the audio via FM radio.
He added that the theater planned to have two feature films each night, one beginning at 8:30 p.m. and the next beginning at 10:30 p.m.
This was necessary for now, Seyler said, because the sun sets later during the summer and with a final screening at 10:30 p.m. the theater would likely close between 12:30-1 a.m.
This could easily be rectified during the fall and winter, he said, when the sun sets much earlier.
However, “It’s sort of a catch 22,” Dare said. “He’s zoned for commercial and we have residential right next to it.”
Dare also expressed concerned with residents and visitors in the adjacent properties or walking in the area seeing explicit content plastered on the building.
Seyler said not all movies would be rated-R, but the theater would appreciate the ability to screen such films for older audiences.
Seyler also said the theater would be willing to commit to building a fence around Sinepuxent Avenue to help shield innocent eyes wandering to the screen, although the council did not hold him to this.
R-rated films would often be screened in the latter half of the evening, he added, and noted that sometimes the rating comes from inappropriate jokes, rather than explicit visual content.
“Some R-Rated movies are just language based, and others showing nudity risk being shutdown — let him use his judgment,” Councilman John Gehrig said.
Dare said, however, he would only support the permit if the council added a contingency requiring the theater to end operations if it were to receive any complaints.
The council agreed, but clarified that a complaint would prompt a review by city officials, rather than an immediate shutdown.
“Yeah, that’s fine, but you’ll have to wait a week or two weeks until we meet,” Dare said. Council President Lloyd Martin responded that the council could meet earlier to handle the situation — in person or via Zoom.
City officials also added the condition that movies must conclude by 1 a.m.
“If there’s an issue, we will take care of the issue right away,” Martin said.
The app, which is more of a simplified website for phone use, will be available at https://www.foxshowtimes.com