In a 7-0 vote on Wednesday evening (Oct. 17), the Ocean City Planning Board approved its Master Plan Re-Examination, a massive document that guides zoning and land-use decisions and has been more than a year in the making.
Board members Sally-Jo DeLussa (former chairwoman), Marc Shuster, Gus Bruno and Joseph Sheppard were not present.
The board listened to about 90 minutes of public comment before approving the plan with little discussion.
The Master Plan does not change any zoning ordinance or city regulation — it serves merely as a set of recommendations. Any proposed ordinance amendments must be approved by City Council at a later date.
Ocean City’s current comprehensive master plan was adopted in 1988 and most recently re-examined and amended in 2006.
Visit the city's Master Plan Re-Examination Report page to see full update and accompanying documents.
Much of the public comment addressed a proposal to redefine the city's Beach and Dune Zone to allow six homes to exist as "conditional uses."
Based on input from two Drive-in Business Zone property owners, the board made its only adjustment to the plan — changing some language to make it clear that certain existing businesses will remain conforming. Members of the public also questioned a recommendation to raise the required height of first-floor living space for new homes.
BEACH AND DUNE ZONE
Several neighbors and residents showed up to protest a recommendation that would create conditional uses for five Beach Road homes and one at 4900 Wesley Avenue.
The homes are built on the beach side of the city's bulkhead line and are part of the Beach and Dune Zone, which does not allow residential or commercial uses.
While the creation of the new zone in 1988 did not force owners to give up their homes, it did make them "nonconforming" — meaning expansions, improvements or rebuilding (in the event of destruction) cannot be completed without obtaining a use variance approval from the Ocean City Zoning Board.
Because of potential changes to views, light, air and open space, the new Beach and Dune Zone definition "might be inviting other litigation," said Keith Davis, a a lawyer representing some Beach Road neighbors.
Joanne Lukens suggested the exclusion of the North End Beach Grill from the list of properties could invite "another possible suit."
Ocean Road resident Dennis Myers said it's "naive" to think that vacant lots won't be developed under the new definition.
Several other Ocean City residents spoke in favor of keeping the current Beach and Dune Zone as it is.
"North Street to Seaspray Road is the nicest area in town," Gull Road resident Fred Miller said.
Ocean City attorney Bill Serber, who represents the owners of 19 and 21 Beach Road, said a petition he filed in February first led the Planning Board to consider a redefined Beach and Dune Zone. He said he issue is one of "vested legal rights" that go back to the time the homes were built, which predates the existence of the Beach and Dune Zone.
"You've struck the right balance between environmental safety and vested property rights," said attorney Dan Young, who represents the owners of 233 and 237 Beach Road.
DRIVE-IN BUSINESS ZONE
While the updated Master Plan suggests a goal to "expand permitted principal and conditional uses" in the Drive-In Business (DB) Zone, which is centered on West Avenue on either side of Ninth Street, DB Zone property owner and former Councilman John Flood suggested that the update fails to achieve that.
Instead, he said, the new language neglects to mention automobile dealers, car washes, lumber yards and supermarkets in the list of principal uses. The changes could potentially make existing businesses nonconforming.
Richard Young, a partner in Shoemaker Lumber, said he's been in business at 1200 West Avenue for 42 years.
"Am I going to be conditional?" he asked. "There's no lumber yard," he said of the listed uses. "There's an aquarium, but there's no lumber yard."
Planning Board member Gary Jessel later moved to add lumber yards, supermarkets, auto dealers and car washes to the list of principal uses in the redefined DB Zone. The board agreed to the change when they approved the plan.
BASE FLOOD ELEVATION
Merion Park resident Marty Mozzo was among the residents who questioned the merits of a proposal to raise required first-floor elevations for new homes.
The Planning Board recommends a revision of building regulations to require Ocean City homes to be constructed above the level of a 100-year flood.
That level — base flood elevation, or BFE (the height storm waters have a 1 percent chance of reaching in any given year) — serves as the baseline for building guidelines.
The existing ordinance requires the first floor of a home to be one foot above BFE. The proposed ordinance would require the first floor to be two feet above BFE. That would put horizontal structures such as floor joists a foot above BFE.
With higher first floors, the proposed ordinance allows for higher roof peaks. The existing regulations cap roof elevations for a home on a 40-foot lot at 40.5 feet. The proposed ordinance would roof elevations of 43 feet and with greater roof pitches.
In making the proposal, planners suggested the elevation of new homes could help put Ocean City in a new category in the National Flood Insurance Program with homeowners seeing substantial savings on insurance premiums.
"It's a good story, but is that really accurate?" Mozzo asked.
Mozzo and former Fourth Ward Councilman Roy Wagner suggested that the new BFE guidelines would not be enough to put Ocean City in a new flood-insurance category.
Mozzo suggested improving flood-control measures instead of focusing on base-flood elevations.