P&Z Approves Upper Downtown Height Restrictions
OCEAN CITY - Over two months have passed since the Planning and Zoning Commission decided to re-advertise a public hearing concerning comprehensive rezoning and amendments to zoning regulations for properties zoned R-2 and R-3a.
That meeting finally came to be Tuesday night and after a brief hearing commissioners discussed the issues regarding height restrictions in those zones and what they thought would be best, ultimately ending in two motions that set separate height limits for both.
It was on Jan. 9 at another Planning and Zoning Commission meeting when the topic was first brought up but it was not long after when the commissioners felt more discussion and a larger consensus would be needed.
The two zoning districts, also known as the Upper Downtown Design Overlay Zone District, were facing amendments that would reduce the current maximum height of 50 feet and five-story buildings to a lesser height that would be in accordance with the town's Comprehensive Master Plan.
That plan, according to Blaine Smith, zoning administrator for the Ocean City Department of Planning and Community Development, was put into place to give that neighborhood some level of protection in the future with existing buildings and to encourage redevelopment. Since then, some property owners have done so, but in excess of up to five stories. Residents in the downtown area said the larger buildings are out of character with the rest of the area, something that the plan set out to protect in the beginning.
Jesse Houston, director of Planning and Community Development, reintroduced the topic again Tuesday night, explaining the zones in question as well as showing examples of what the city considers two-story versus two-and-a-half-story buildings, and other heights, for clarification.
According to Houston, of the 423 buildings found in the two districts, only seven exceed the previously proposed three-story limit. If a height limitation was approved, Houston went on to say how the buildings affected most would be newer ones as well as condominiums since redevelopment becomes unappealing if developers are unable to maximize the profitability from their property.
It was then that Houston presented a proposal that consisted of two parts, the first of which stated that the area zoned R-1 would have a height limit of three stories, or 35 feet. The second part stated that the areas currently zoned R3-A would have a height restriction of four stories, or 40 feet.
First to speak out on his disapproval of the proposal was local resident and property owner Joe Hall.
'I just don't see the correlation between height and positive reinvestment and redevelopment in my neighborhood,' the former city councilman said in his opening remarks. 'I feel that this would be one new barrier for a person considering reinvesting and redeveloping their property to not do that.'
Hall went on to say he feels the commissioners are better suited to support and back up design guidelines already in place so as to allow positive redevelopment through those avenues since he believes restrictions do not make good incentives.
Another person against the height limitations was Joe Moore, a local property lawyer for Williams Hammond Moore Shockley & Harrison P.A., who was on hand to represent two of his clients who own property in the areas in question.
Moore stressed that roof design is a key element in this issue and that it should be implemented to its fullest in order to get the most out of a building's height. Supporting an idea mentioned earlier by Commissioner Joel Brous, Moore said allowing a half story or a dormered living space on top of an existing three- or four-story building would be ideal.
'What you've done is maintain the incentive to develop because you haven't just sliced a story off the top of a building, but you have obligated that person in their redevelopment to be very aware of the character of the neighborhood,' he said. 'Reducing height is not the ultimate solution to the character of a neighborhood, it's what you do with what you have in the height of a building that defines the character.'
The commissioners began to get on board with the idea that essentially, under an altered proposal, a four-story building would be able to have three and a half floors of living with a floor for parking, thus keeping it at the desired 40 foot mark. The only change would be the allowance of the half story within an existing roof.
However, debate over whether or not both zoning areas should have the same height limitations arose when Commissioner Peck Miller asked if the current proposal with the half story added on would be viable. Commissioner Lauren Taylor said the three-and-a-half-story limitation in the R-1 zone would ultimately suffer since owners along there would most likely not use the first floor for parking and instead get all the living space they could out of what they had.
Miller countered, saying how the lots in R-1 are smaller than R3-A and that he thinks the two should be differentiated because of their density levels.
'Regardless of whether you say people are or aren't building houses, they are going to redevelop if they can go to 3.5 - someone will build a house down there in a heartbeat,' he said. 'I think it's a great incentive and it will maintain the character of what we are trying to keep in Ocean City for a long time.'
Commissioner Pam Buckley was on board with Miller and said part of making the downtown area attractive is taking different areas and keeping them in character with neighboring areas.
'You can have multi-unit buildings that are compatible with the single family and I think that's what we are looking for,' she said.
Miller then made a motion to restrict properties zoned R3-A to 4.5 stories. The motion unanimously passed and a motion to restrict properties zoned R-1 to 3.5 stories was made. This motion met a bit of resistance from Brous and Taylor, although it still passed with a 4-2 vote. Also included in the motions was OCDC's recommendation to make voluntary development incentives, such as widened sidewalks and setbacks to match neighboring buildings, as mandatory.