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Baltimore Avenue: city confirms street built off-center

(Feb. 22, 2013) Much like the discovery this week of the bones of Richard III – revealed, to Shakespeare’s credit, to have suffered from severe scoliosis – beneath a parking lot in Leicester, Ocean City has recently confirmed its own case of historic malformation beneath its pavement.

After more than a century of growth, the town has only now finalized property surveys that conclusively show that Baltimore Avenue is, in fact, built cockeyed.

City Public Works Director Hal Adkins submitted land plats to the county records office last month that clearly show that the portion of the avenue above North Division Street was not built – and is not currently situated – parallel to the right-of-way strip that was established in the late 19th century.

“The paved surface of the road and the two sidewalks next to it are not installed parallel to either side of the right-of-way, as it’s drawn,” Adkins said. “The improved portion of the roadway is improved at an angle. If you went up in a helicopter and were to look down, you could tell that it’s slanted.”

When the original land division for the municipality was established in 1875, the city’s limits stretched only from North Division to South Division Streets. Between these two, the city claimed a 50-foot-wide easement for Baltimore Avenue.

When the town annexed further land to the north and south some years later, towards the end of the century, this right-of-way was widened to 75 feet for those portions. Since the storm of 1933, the bulk of the southern section – below South Second Street – has been underwater, beneath the inlet.

However, the city did not use all of its allotted easement when it laid down and upgraded the roadway over the years. While the unpaved sections retained the city’s rights of use, they were typically incorporated into adjacent properties as front yards, parking spaces, or porch extensions.

“What you have is a large amount of unimproved right-of-way that appears, to the passerby, as private property,” Adkins said.

Furthermore, the road itself was not laid down straight through the easement zone, but rather diagonally across it. At North Division Street, all of the city’s unused right-of-way lies on the west side of the road; but as one progresses north, the road slants west, gradually shifting the excess space to the east side of the road. The direction of the road and right-of-way then abruptly changes at 15th Street, above which Baltimore Avenue was built much later in the 20th century.

Once the Baltimore Avenue corridor had been fully built out with hotels and homes, and the bed of the modern roadway set, the road angle became less of an issue. But although most modern property owners are unaware of the situation, those who built the original foundations of the corridor definitely were.

“Clearly, when these buildings were built, they knew about the historic easement,” Adkins said. On the new survey maps, he point out, one can clearly see that the porches of the old houses along Baltimore Avenue, between North Division and 15th Streets, line up perfectly with the boundaries of the original right-of-way and are not parallel, if one looks closely, to the actual edge of the sidewalk.

When the town rebuilt Baltimore Avenue in 1991, the road was widened to take up the exact space of the 50-foot easement that existed between North Division and South Division. Below South Division, the road was aligned with the east side of the original right-of-way, leaving the unimproved excess all along the west side

“That section is dead-on because I rebuilt the whole thing in 1991, and I made sure to put it dead-on,” Adkins said. Some properties had sections of porches or steps protruding into the road, Adkins said, which were removed and rebuilt to the side or rear of the buildings by the city, at no cost to the property owners.

The city could, theoretically, do the same thing with the rest of the 75-foot right of way that exists north of North Division Street and south of South Division Street. Because of this, it has been the city’s policy to only allow minor structures such as signs, walkways, and parking lots to be placed in the right-of-way whenever properties along Baltimore Avenue are renovated or rebuilt.

Recently, however, this policy was tightened to specify that nothing except landscaping be allowed in any easement zones.

“The mayor and council instructed staff to not issue any more building permits that would obstruct that right of way,” said city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith. “They don’t want to encumber those areas any more for the future.”

This has put somewhat of a squeeze on rebuilding in the area. At last month’s Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, the board again rejected a proposal to build a five-story condo on the northeast corner of Baltimore Avenue and 10th Street because the structure’s size violated the specified property setbacks, which expand from five feet to 10 feet once a building rises above three stories.

However, a representative for the property’s owner, Ardeshir Sassan, claimed that his client was forced to build up because the lot’s substandard size made it financially impossible to invest in a rental property that would otherwise be so limited in space.

Since 1970, the city’s minimum lot size has been 5,000 square feet. However, the lot in question is only 3,500, largely due to the fact that the westernmost 30 feet of the property is city right-of-way, even though it appears to be part of Sassan’s lot.

The Ocean City Development Corporation – the city-backed nonprofit that sponsors downtown revitalization projects – also requested that Sassan not be given any leeway, as it appeared that he simply failed to understand the restrictions involved with the lot before he razed the building that was previously located there.

“It would appear that the bulk of the building is causing the need for these requests,” OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin told the board. “The requests for the variances seem to be self-imposed hardships to accommodate a larger and taller building.”

Another project in the works that may be affected by the right-of-way is the proposed construction of a miniature golf course on the property that used to house Trimper’s Tank Battle amusement ride, on Baltimore Avenue below South First Street.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission recently gave a favorable recommendation to City Council to add miniature golf as a conditional use in the downtown zoning district, which would allow Trimper Amusements to appeal the city for the rights to build a course granted that its design did not adversely affect the neighborhood. The course would be constructed and operated by Old Pro Golf.

However, the Tank Battle lot – located just south of the historic Henry Hotel – features roughly 32 feet of what appears to be the front of the property but is, in fact, the remainder of the city’s 75-foot right of way. In fact, the corner of the Henry Hotel itself protrudes into this area, which appears to be the building’s front lawn.

Because so many of the easement areas are currently used for parking, in a neighborhood that is already pressed by traffic, “it would have a tremendous impact if the city ever reclaimed that space,” Irwin said.

Although OCDC has no development plans that would use the remaining right-of-way, “it should be an important discussion when the city wants to have it,” Irwin said.

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