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City grants future sign rights to 94th Street mall property

(June 14, 2013) Despite concerns that it would establish a problematic precedent, the city moved forward this week with creating a grandfathering provision for the derelict signs at the 94th Street mall, with the hope that their removal will be a tepid step toward future redevelopment.

Council voted Tuesday to approve an agreement between the city and the owners of the largely unoccupied Ocean Plaza Mall, which would allow the facility’s numerous marquees to be taken down but replaced in the same manner within a 10-year grace period, regardless of any new signage policies the city may adopt in the interim.

“They have a concern about protecting their rights to those signs under what our ordinance allows,” said Planning and Community Development Director Matt Margotta. “You can’t go through our code and find the word ‘grandfather’ in regards to signs.”

The shopping center, on the northwest block of 94th Street and Coastal Highway, has been largely derelict for some years and contains only two stores, Superfresh and Rose’s. The former holds a long-term lease on the property that grants it control over uses by other tenants, providing an assurance to the property owner but making large-scale redevelopment difficult.

But if such a project were to be negotiated, the owners would like the assurance that they would not have to backpedal on their usage rights by losing their signs, which are in disrepair and have attracted complaints.

“I’ve had a lot of complaints about those signs,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “To remove them would be a big enhancement to the property.”

The city has no current plans to change its regulations on signage, but has done so in the past, Meehan said. Under the current iteration of the code, the facility’s signs are legal.

“They’re not non-conforming today, and they may or may not be in the future,” Meehan said.

“We’re not sure what that redevelopment would look like if it happened,” Margotta said. “It probably wouldn’t be an issue anyway.”

There seemed to be some question, however, as to whether or not the city could create a policy specific to a single site, and whether that policy would set a precedent for other properties.

“The City Solicitor did want me to relay that this probably should take an ordinance to do, because it could set a precedent,” said Heather Stansbury, an attorney with the law firm of City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who is filling in for Ayres while he recovers from a medical issue.

“He found it to be somewhat speculative. We don’t know what a new sign ordinance would be, and we don’t know when it’s coming, if it’s coming,” Stansbury said.

If the city were to adopt such a policy for 94th Street, “you might see a lot of people addressing the council about pre-amortizing their sign rights,” Margotta said. However, he said he believed bringing the issue to ordinance “might be a little bit of overkill” for what was being accomplished.

“The precedence, if any, is that someone is taking down a sign that needs replacement, and we’ll let them put it back up if they do it in ten years,” Meehan said.

Councilman Doug Cymek asked if reducing the time limit would spur the property to be redeveloped faster.

“Would granting it for five years accelerate the project?” he asked.

“Ocean City has utilized ten years for amortizing some non-conformities in the past,” Margotta said. “Five years is sort of an industry standard, but I was trying to establish some consistency.”

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas queried what would happen if the property was broken into smaller parcels or redeveloped only in part.

“Then they’re on their own,” Margotta said. “These signs are for this particular property.”

Only Councilman Brent Ashley voted against the agreement, saying he wanted to defer to the City Solicitor’s advice.

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