OCEAN CITY – Due to safety concerns, new scooter rental businesses will have to follow new regulations approved by the Mayor and Council yesterday in a 5-2 vote, while current operators will have one year to conform.
On Jan. 31, the Mayor and City Council passed an ordinance to establish a 90-day moratorium on the issuance of new or renewed business licenses for scooter rentals. The council became concerned over the proliferation of scooter rental businesses in town and the safety issues that have occurred.
The moratorium expires on March 30 and the council asked the Planning and Zoning Commission to conduct public hearings to consider the issue and draft recommendations for better regulation.
On Feb. 22, the commission held a public hearing and continued it on March 6 when the hearing was closed and deliberation was conducted.
“We did get considerable input at the hearings from some of the scooter business owners and operators which were informative and really helpful for the commission to come up with these recommendations,” Planning and Community Development Director Jesse Houston said.
Houston added the commission paid particular attention to scooter incident statistics that were provided by the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD). Scooter rental accidents have been on the rise in Ocean City since 2009. In 2010, there were 71 total accidents, 33 of which involved rented scooters and 38 were privately owned. In 2011, there were 68 accidents, 36 of which involved rented scooters and 32 were privately owned. From 2010 to 2011, there was a 52-percent increase in total scooter incidents, according to the OCPD.
The recommendations will entail changes and additions to two different sections of Ocean City’s code. The first with be scooter rental businesses will now operate under a conditional use of the zoning code. The rental of motor scooters, mopeds, scoot coops and similar motorized vehicles will only be permitted in the following districts: Local Commercial, Shopping Center, Bayside Mixed Use, the two Boardwalk Commercial, Downtown Mixed Use and Manufacturing Districts.
Regulations will also be placed into the business license chapter of the code as nonconforming uses. A rental business possessing a valid business license as of March 30 that does not comply with the new licensing requirements may renew the license for the new license year. After May 31, 2013, all such businesses shall have an approved conditional use and be subject to the new regulations.
One new regulation recommended is the licensee must provide instruction and training to each customer in advance of the rental of the vehicle. The licensee must provide a training area on the premise of the business or on other private property within a reasonable walking distance of the business. The training area must be an unobstructed paved surface at least 20 feet wide by 50 feet long in order to provides adequate space to turn, accelerate and stop the vehicle.
Other conditions include activities such as driving or operating vehicles, displaying vehicles for rent, training, or fueling cannot take place on public property; when the business is closed, vehicles must be stored within a building or temporary storage container; sales transactions take place inside a building; fueling methods and locations have to be approved by the Ocean City Fire Marshal and all fueling must take place outside; all rental vehicles are required by state law have a capacity of 50 cubic centimeters (CC) piston displacement or less; the licensee must provide the town with written proof of business insurance of at least $1 million; vehicles may only be rented to persons with a valid driver’s license; and renters under the age of 18 must have parents or guardians written permission.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas was concerned that current scooter rental businesses wouldn’t be required to have a training area for this summer season. She pointed out that the police statistics have proven two businesses in particular produced the most accidents.
“I am not happy that this is being held up … here we have all these operators who are really trying to do a good job for the town without the ordinance even being in place, and then two operators that are blatantly abusing the town,” she said.
Councilman Doug Cymek said that it is a 50/50 split when it comes to rental accidents versus privately-owned scooter accidents but rentals are mostly at fault.
“I am a proponent if we can save someone from themselves we should try to do that,” he said.
Councilman Joe Hall found an issue in creating new regulations when the current code is not being enforced.
“We need to enforce the laws that are on the books better,” he said. “The desire from this whole council including me is a safer road way and a better experience in the town but some of these changes I think are unnecessary.”
Council President Jim Hall responded that by having the businesses fall under a conditional use it would provide the town with the right to eliminate a bad operator down the road. He also suggested having the inspection done by an independent company rather than the OCPD.
“I am not an advocate of having the police inspect anything else,” he said.
Instead, Jim Hall suggested having two or three inspection services selected through a RFP process at the end of summer to inspect scooters and provide a sealed certification to the town that the vehicles comply with state and city code.
“I would like to see it pass even if it is for next year. I think it is a good safety step forward and it regulates the industry,” he said of the recommended regulations.
A motorcycle rider for most of his life, Councilman Brent Ashley suggested exempting riders that hold a motorcycle license from having to be trained when renting a scooter.
“It is like asking Dale Earnhardt if he can drive a go-kart,” he said.
Cymek placed a motion to move the commission’s recommendation toward ordinance form adding the requirements of inspection certifications and motorcycle licensees being exempt from training. The motion passed in a 5-2 vote with Joe Hall and Ashley opposed.
A public hearing will next be conducted before the Planning and Zoning Commission following a 30-day advertisement period.
Mayor Rick Meehan concluded that the ordinance will not give current operators a “free pass” to violate current zoning codes this season.
“It doesn’t give anybody a pass if they don’t think they have to conform,” he said.