(July 5, 2013) Another chapter passed last week in the ongoing saga of Ocean City’s Skye Bar, a case that could almost re-define the phrase “stuck between a rock and a hard place” as “stuck between the zoning board and the liquor board.”
Last Thursday, the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals heard and approved a request by Galaxy 66 owner Roger Cebula to accept his temporary lease of city-owned parking to fulfill the requirement generated by his proposed enclosure of the restaurant’s rooftop bar.
“I think that both this board and the Planning Commission gave permission for the enclosure to some degree, but one of the conditions there was that there wouldn’t be any further enclosure without securing parking,” explained Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith.
At this same time last year, Cebula had appeared before the BZA to seek an exception for the 7-foot-high sound-proof panels that he had installed around the perimeter of the Skye Bar, which has a partial roof over its bar and kitchen area, but is otherwise open to the elements.
The panels were a requirement of the county’s Board of License Commissioners, which regulates liquor sales. Due to concerns by neighbors about noise, the BLC had required some type of soundproofing as a condition for the Skye Bar’s liquor license to include a permit for live entertainment.
But this created a major issue for the venue’s parking requirement under the Town of Ocean City’s own municipal code. The city requires a certain amount of designated parking spaces for any given land use, in order to alleviate the town’s perennial lack thereof.
However, a clause in the town’s zoning policy allows bars and restaurants to have an unenclosed outside dining area of up to the same square footage as their inside dining area without requiring additional parking, the theory being that patrons will use the outside area more heavily in nicer weather and correspondingly reduce the parking load of the inside area.
But the height of Cebula’s sound wall qualified under the town code as an enclosure, meaning that he would have to provide separate parking for the Skye Bar, which he did not have given that the Galaxy 66’s building was already parking-deficient when it was built. The BZA granted a variance, however, to exempt the Skye Bar’s paneling from being a technical enclosure on the condition that no further enclosure would be done.
However, continuing noise complaints at the Skye Bar this year caused the BLC to revoke some of the venue’s entertainment privileges.
“During the last year, those sheet glass doors did not work, and the Galaxy was cited with four noise violations,” said Cebula’s representative, Harry How. “All music has to stop totally at 8:30 p.m.”
To correct the problem, Cebula is proposing the installation of glass awnings, which can be moved on tracks to allow the bar to be open to the air or fully enclosed while not obstructing patrons’ view.
“They are movable, but not necessarily removable,” How said. “The goal is to work with the town and the police department to where there are no noise violations, and then come back to the liquor board.”
Doing so, of course, would force the bar to secure its own parking. Cebula originally had plans to purchase property across Coastal Highway, but this was discouraged by the town given that potentially intoxicated patrons would be crossing eight lanes to get back to their cars.
Instead, Cebula reached an agreement with the city to lease 50 spaces on the northeast corner of the town-owned Public Safety Building lot, to be used as overflow parking for his restaurant and bar. The lease is good for three years, with an option to renew each year for two years after that.
“I think that’s why the city agreed to a certain lease period, not knowing what the demand on that property will be later on,” Smith said.
The awning “is a type of enclosure that could be dismantled, but it’s more than just a drop curtain,” he said.
This was the sticking point of the board’s approval of the arrangement: If Cebula loses the parking, the enclosure would be both physically and financially difficult to remove.
Attorney John Robins, who lives across the street from the bar and was speaking on behalf of himself and his neighbors, said the community’ concern was that the awning would allow the bar to return to being a nuisance and would be difficult to dislodge.
“I don’t think that the board would ever approve a condo to be built if they had off-site parking and only a five year lease on it,” Robins said. “What are you going to say after five years? Knock down the condo?”
“I would caution that you’re going to spend $100,000 [on the awning] and not get what you want,” Robins said. “As long as we’re talking about background dinner music, it wouldn’t be an issue. But the only way to cost-justify this improvement is to return to the ‘pack-em-in’ niteclub that the place was [before the BLC crackdown].”
But the BZA was quick to submit that it was not its place to legislate whether or not the awning was a sound financial decision.
“In regards to what we’re here to do tonight, it’s not the noise issue,” BZA chair Al Harrison told Robins. “[Cebula] has to listen to what the liquor board says in that regard, and it sounds like they’ve taken your concerns quite seriously.”
“We’re talking about the cars in the parking lot. Whether or not it’s sound-proof is someone else’s job,” said board member Bruce Kennington.
As an illustration, Smith offered up two examples of similar situations. One, the OC Jewish Deli, had previously asked the board to accept leased parking to fulfill the burden created by the plastic canopies it plans to put over its outside seating area this winter. In that case, Smith noted, the canopy is easily removed if the parking is lost.
A different scenario, Smith noted, would be Seacrets’ Morley Hall nightclub, whose parking is leased property. When the project was approved, Smith noted that Seacrets’ owner Leighton Moore was given a mandate by the city that if he ever failed to renew his parking lease, he would have to close the venue.
“Is this more like Morley Hall, which is more permanent, or more like the Jewish deli, which is more temporary?” board attorney Heather Stansbury asked rhetorically. “Depending on which one, the board would be placing different restrictions on the application.”
The board voted unanimously to accept the parking arrangement on the condition that if Cebula ever loses the parking lease, he will not be able to operate the Skye Bar until the awnings are removed.