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The Road Ahead - Charting the Future of Ocean City - Part 1

VMI, Lexington, Va.
VMI, Lexington, Va.

We need a course change.  Our focus has been on how to make money off of Ocean City in the short term … where we can build next … how much inventory we’ll have to sell this year.  Instead we should be focusing on how to make Ocean City both a better place to live and vacation.  Isn’t that the purpose of a municipal government?  Taking such a short sighted approach can only lead to a future defined by accident.  If you need proof of that think of how Ocean City has changed over the past decade or two.  Is it a better place to live or vacation today?

Many would say that the future is already determined … that we passed a tipping point … that there’s nothing to do now but keep on keeping on.  We had our opportunities to chart a different course but chose instead the path to short term profitability.  Hey it might be true that it’s already too late for Ocean City, but those that proclaim it the loudest are those who benefit the most from the old tried and true … the “here a duplex there a duplex everywhere a duplex” crowd.  If that’s where the money is it’s also what created the Ocean City we know today.

What follows is a vision for an Ocean City I’m skeptical will ever exist.  You can call it a dream if you like.  Yet if it’s a dream that we share, and if we all take a stake in it, some part of it may come true.  I’m going to cover a lot of ground so I envision this as a series.  I can’t do it in one editorial.  This is part one.

Two factors came into play to provide the opportunity I referred to.  The first was the loss of commercial business.  It’s bad enough losing businesses but what’s worse is rezoning that commercial land for yet more high density residential development.  The second factor was a decline in property values.  Taken together they offered an opportunity.  A barrier was lowered by the (relatively) lower cost of land acquisition.

One opportunity was to develop traditional single family neighborhoods that are more appealing as residences.  Remember single family?  It was the buzzword at the last ward election.  From single family came Coastal Cottage and condominiums.  The tune is the same but the words have changed to “here a condo, there a condo, everywhere a condo.”  That lower cost of acquisition only resulted in even greater density and increased profit margins for the developer. 

The second opportunity was to increase open space.  Two of those commercial parcels along Haven could have been converted to park land.  I attended an Environmental Commission meeting where the concept of a linear park was proposed.  What better place for park land than along Haven?  Can you imagine a park within walking distance of virtually every home in Ocean City?  The wildlife preserve towards the South end of town runs along Haven and with good reason.  Haven Avenue is one of the lowest areas on the island and is subject to recurring flooding.  Much better I think to have converted that land to open space than to build housing in a swamp.  So much for missed opportunities. 

Our most pressing problem is the loss of residents.  Our population decreased from 17,000 to 11,000 as of the last census.  A loss of residents (and consumer demand) results in a corresponding loss of businesses.  A thriving business environment is the backbone of any community.  It’s difficult to attract residents without a commercial base, and difficult to retain commercial without a stable market for goods and services.  We’re losing both and as a result Ocean City is dying as a community.  Why aren’t we addressing that?

If we’re going to turn things around we need to play to our strengths.  Ocean City is primarily a retirement community.  We should be promoting Ocean City not only as a place to vacation but as a place to retire to.  To that end we should be building more modest single family (retirement) homes.

If we can build up our population we’ll create demand for commercial.  We don’t need to subsidize commercial investment.   We need to create demand for it.  In time we might be able to attract working families too … business owners and job opportunities.  Once commercial is converted to residential there’s no turning back.  What we’re doing is selling off our future as a community.  People do not want to live where there’s an absence of goods and services; of places to go and things to do.

The remaining challenge is to find a way to make Ocean City a destination in the off season.  I’m not sure how we can accomplish that but I am sure that building more vacation homes isn’t the solution.  Word is the “Solaris” is back on.  Doubtless the provisions of the new Hospitality Zone have made it viable.  What is contemplated is a high rise (for Ocean City) condominium complex in parking lot adjacent to Flanders.  Imagine instead an all season resort with conference rooms.  Flanders is probably the closest thing we have to a conference center.  That parking lot would be a natural location for a convention complex.

The next installment of this editorial will make some specific suggestions as to how to make Ocean City a better place to live and vacation.   If you were to ask me I would say that Ocean City peaked some 20 years ago and has been in decline ever since.  If you don’t move forward you fall behind.  I see so many opportunities for improvement.  We can’t get back what was lost but we can at least salvage what we have left.  If Ocean City is to survive as a community it’s imperative that we take a different approach.  How can we ensure that Ocean City remains a first class resort?  How can we improve?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Eric Sauder January 12, 2014 at 09:32 PM
The casinos aren't doing so well either and another 1,000 or so jobs were just lost with the closing of the Atlantic Club.
Eric Sauder January 12, 2014 at 09:37 PM
Come on Pagnano. That was a good comment. Did it just not post or did you delete it?
Wyatt January 13, 2014 at 04:32 AM
Eric Am very aware of the development fever. Our place is also a tear down, 3 bedroom cotttage south of 34th St. We get at least two solitications a week from developers, phone and mail, and occasional knocks at the door from them if they happen to notice we are there. Wonder if we'lll get developer solitications here on Patch as a result of these posts indicating our places are tear downs.
Big c January 13, 2014 at 09:20 AM
Eric, have you seen the old wawa property on 4th street? Talk about creative zoning. I just rebuilt in that neighborhood, 10 ft front setback, 25ft rear setback, total of 15 ft side setback. Those duplexes are right on top of each other. I thought that neighborhood was zoned single family? I am 1 block away , single family
vic January 13, 2014 at 10:47 AM
the rest of that wawa block is zoned for duplexes. a developer wanted to purchase the wawa lot and build duplexes, but the neighbors complained that they didn't want to lose the commercial zoning, so a deal was struck with the neighbors to allow condos with commercial space on the ground floor.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 11:56 AM
OK it was around the first time I got involved here that an attempt was made to rezone the Wawa for residential development. Three attempts were made. I fought all three. The third attempt was, as they say, the charm. First you can't zone a parcel differently from the rest of the half block. That's spot zoning and its illegal. You can issue a (in this case) a use variance. The half block was zoned for neighborhood business which allowed for residential on top of commercial. Over time so many variances were handed out that except for the Wawa and one other property the half block was all in duplex. That created a problem for the home owners that bought those duplexes because they were not in conformance with the zoning. The property owners on that half block wanted it rezoned for residential. In doing so it increased the value of their properties and made it possible to borrow against them. It also made it easier to sell them. So in effect that half block was rezoned by variance. This kind of thing happens more often in Ocean City than they'd like to admit. We often zone by variance here. OK the history ...
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 12:09 PM
The first attempt was to have council rezone it. That almost happened. The Planning Board (which was independent back then) ruled the proposed new use for that half block as not consistent with the Mater Plan. That meant that more than a simple majority had to approve it, and anyone that voted for it had to justify their vote. Allegretto had to recuse himself because it was the real estate firm he worked for that was partnered in the project. As it turned out the swing vote was Kemmenosh. He found out that the Wawa parcel went under agreement the day before the vote was scheduled and went ballistic. "I don't believe in coincidences like that" said Kemmenosh. The next attempt was before the zoning board. When it became clear to the applicant that they weren't going to get satisfaction from the zoning board they pulled the application. I was standing around in the ante room where the developers were talking and overheard their attorney state "we'll take it back to Council." By that time several new council members were seated and they felt they had the votes. Also the Planning Board was no longer independent and this time voted the proposed rezoning consistent with the Master Plan. The Mayor had appointed all relators and developers to the Planning Board. Anyway it went thru on the third attempt. There was a certain inevitability to it. There was money to be made on the Wawa site. When it comes right down to it that's all that really matters here.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 12:16 PM
So in the final analysis we now have another block exclusively in duplex in what was once in a commercial zone. There's even more to this story but I could be writing all day. The question is are we better off with duplexes there as opposed to a convenience store or some other kind of commercial application? I guess you can always go to your neighbor to borrow some milk (if anyone is around.) There is one caveat. According to what I was told (and you never know what is true) most of the homeowners on that half block live here year around. But I also think it would be good to have something like a convenience store on the north end of town. Having a place you can walk to to pick up a newspaper or cup of coffee I think makes a neighborhood more livable.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 12:22 PM
There is SO much money being made from development here. We have a government that is complicit with development. Its not easy fighting the Big Money. And that, in a nutshell, is why Ocean City is what it is today.
vic January 13, 2014 at 12:25 PM
there was a clause in the deed that did not allow another convenience store to be built there. don't forget; wawa has another store only a few blocks away and doesn't want the competition.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 12:26 PM
To Vic's point the compromise that was made was to allow commercial on the first floor of one of the corner (I think 30 foot) lots. That's all that's left of what was once a commercial property with off street parking.
Big c January 13, 2014 at 12:51 PM
Thanks for the info. I am a neighbor on 3rd and haven, I was never asked for approval. They just look like they are on top of one another. I guess connected people do not have to conform to set backs .
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 01:08 PM
I understand C and I'm going by what was stated by those who did attend the meeting. I talked to one of them after the meeting and he agreed that we have to slow down the spread of duplexes all over this island. We had that much in common. Vic I'm not for having Wawa or any other outside entity determine land use in Ocean City. If it were me I would have let it sit until they removed the deed restriction. And I would have been all over them about maintaining that property in the mean time. As long as they owned the property they would have had to pay taxes on it and maintain it. So it would have become a drag on them. And according to testimony at a council the deed restriction WAS removed. Let's not forget that Wawa stood to make more money off it by having it rezoned residential.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 01:13 PM
As to converting some part of downtown Asbury into a pedestrian mall, no one knows if (or how) it might work for Ocean City. But we're not going to know until we at least look into it. I'm going for a walk on the beach (something that will be good for all of us :)
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 01:15 PM
Like so many other things here the demise of the Wawa was a win win for everyone but the residents of this town.
vic January 13, 2014 at 06:18 PM
didn't the vandalism, shoplifting, and other crimes committed by the residents of this town contribute to the closing of this wawa. the situation became so bad that the city required wawa to install expensive outdoor lighting, at which point wawa decided that it was no longer profitable enough to stay open.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 07:02 PM
In my opinion that was a smoke screen. I can't believe, with the police force we have, that we can't contain vandalism. Heck they probably could have posted a patrolman there fulltime.
Eric Sauder January 13, 2014 at 07:05 PM
As far as remaining a convenience store the problem is who would have operated it. Maybe Blitz?
Big c January 14, 2014 at 08:57 AM
There were problems when the wawa was there. Like Eric said they could of put a car in the alley at night, the detectiveswere always around. My question is how did they get around the setbacks?
Eric Sauder January 14, 2014 at 11:16 AM
I might have missed it C but I'm not aware that the builder received variances for setbacks. I drove by there the other day and like you was surprised both by the size of the development and the density of it. The elevation will give an appearance of density. Maybe I'll go down there and measure the set back.
Big c January 14, 2014 at 11:31 AM
Thanks Eric, I am not against building. I just think there should be rules that EVERYBODY must follow.
vic January 14, 2014 at 01:11 PM
eric, while you're at it, check big c's claim that he required a 15 foot side yard setback. from talking to pete, I was under the impression that the total side yard setback was 10 feet (much too small in my opinion).
Eric Sauder January 16, 2014 at 05:47 PM
Story Time. Lest you think that the Wawa half block was rezoned for duplex because of sensitivity to the non-conforming property owners think again. A block along West was recently rezoned to 30 foot lots. The reason given was that the zoning on that block was inconsistent with what was there. According to someone who would know the proposed new zoning made more properties non-conforming than conforming. Ex-councilman Roy Wagner circulated a petition which was signed by most of the property owners on that block opposing the rezoning. It was presented at the council meeting where it was summarily dismissed since it was not typewritten. There was a 60 foot lot on that block. Rezoning to 30 feet made it possible to subdivide that lot and build two duplexes there (4 units.)
Eric Sauder January 16, 2014 at 05:50 PM
Now that it stopped raining I'll go measure the setback.
Eric Sauder January 16, 2014 at 05:57 PM
I attended a zoning board meeting last night where it was stated that something like 75% of properties in Ocean City do not conform to their zone (70 something I don't remember now.) Zoning here is subservient to development.
Eric Sauder January 16, 2014 at 06:08 PM
And the new condo complex envisioned for the parking lot adjacent to Flanders is not called the Solaris. I had the name wrong. I'm hearing now that something in the order of 90 units are envisioned there.
Eric Sauder January 16, 2014 at 08:50 PM
I should say this in regard to an earlier comment. It was only councilmen Wagner and Guinosso that expressed sensitivity to the property owners on that block. As for the rest of them if it jives with what the developers want and what they hope to accomplish they'll use it. Otherwise what the property owners want is immaterial. To be fair there are council members who will show some sensitivity to public opinion but you have to hit them over the head with it ... make it impossible to ignore. Pete and I talk a couple of times a week. Sometimes I call him. Sometimes he calls me. But he wants to know your opinion. And I also know he does the same with other people too. So let me ask you. When was the last time your council rep called you to ask for your opinion?
Barbara Colombo January 17, 2014 at 07:28 AM
NEVER...he doesn't even return your phone calls!!! (2nd ward)
Curious Mermaid January 17, 2014 at 11:54 AM
Maybe the City Council ward reps could hold a twice monthly meeting maybe at the community center or one of the local coffee shops and ask folks whats important to them?
vic January 17, 2014 at 12:01 PM
my councilman said that he was going to have monthly meetings, but so far, I can only recall 2 meetings being held since his election. as far as I know, pete guinosso in the 4th ward is the only councilman who holds regular meetings in his ward.

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