(Sept. 5, 2014) Although any major revisions to the city’s zoning code in regard to problematic weekly house rentals now seem unlikely, some shakeups may be coming with regard to enforcement and the way the Ocean City Police Department handles noise complaints.
Following a public hearing on the issue two weeks ago, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission decided this week to schedule a joint meeting with City Council to discuss potential reform efforts that are, as of yet, somewhat amorphous.
What was most discussed, however, was the apparent lack of response from the OCPD – which, it was noted, has not had a representative at any of the meetings on the matter thus far.
“You would hope that the police would have a little more presence,” said Commission Chair Pam Buckley.
“I’d really like to know what officers are told on how to respond to noise complaints,” said Commissioner Lauren Taylor, relaying the criticism heard numerous time at the hearing that police will simply drive by, often with their windows up, just to log a response without actually investigating.
“That’s not an appropriate response, as far as I’m concerned,” Taylor said.
“Although the police certainly have their hands full, it seems a lot of them have a very nonchalant attitude toward noise,” said Commissioner Chris Shanahan. “I think that needs to be addressed.”
Part of the laissez-faire attitude of the police may stem from the fact that enforcement against the landlord or agent – rather than the temporary tenants – is difficult to achieve, and thus goes nowhere toward preventing owners from housing further problem tenants in the future.
“The agents or owners have to be accountable,” said Commissioner Peck Miller. “They have to be made aware.”
The latest round of concern about noisy and overcrowded rental homes – something which the resort has deal with for decades – began in earnest this past spring with complaints from residents of Mallard Island, a traditionally owner-occupied neighborhood.
In Ocean City, as with many other communities, certain zoning districts are protected by the clause of “single-family use,” which stipulates that homes must be built for and occupied by two or more persons related by blood or marriage, or no more than four unrelated persons living together under a shared agreement and with a single kitchen facility.
In the resort, this applies to both R-1 (single-family residential) and MH (mobile home) zoning districts, which comprise roughly 11 percent of the total land parcels within the town limits. However, the single-family covenant appears to be rarely, if ever, enforced, as evidenced by the fact that the problem property on Mallard Island is advertised to sleep 17.
Further, the vast majority of complaints at the Aug. 19 hearing appeared to be violations that fell outside the single-family restriction.
Most of those who testified were, in fact, not from Mallard Island, and many did not live in single-family districts at all, indicating the problem was much less localized than one small neighborhood.
“Any standards we establish have to be city-wide,” said Taylor.
Issues of massive overcrowding – such as 35 people in a six-bedroom home, as one resident testified – are likely already illegal under the structural occupancy limits of the building code, and/or under the life safety code for evacuation established by the city Fire Marshal.
This led the commission to discuss this week some type of standardized limit on occupancy – for every zone, not just single-family – that could be legally tied to the property.
“You take the three codes [zoning, building, and fire] and enforce what is the most stringent for a given property in a given zone,” said Commissioner Palmer Gillis. “I think that’s the best way to look at it.”
The city already has the framework set for regulation in the form of its noise ordinance, which requires all non-hotel rental properties to obtain a license – including a sticker that must be posted on the door of the property – that is traceable by the police for noise violations.
As it exists, however, this policy has two major holes. First, a great number, possibly the majority, of rentals are operating unlicensed. Secondly, communication from the police back to the city’s code enforcement office seems to be scant.
According to city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith, there are 276 licensed rentals of single-family homes in the resort, which generated 67 complaints on 13 different properties over the past year-and-a-half – and although some realtors had pointed to these numbers as indicating that the problem with disruptive home rentals was overblown, the commission seemed to think otherwise.
Rental licenses also require that the property’s owner, or their designated agent, be available within a certain distance of the city. But again, this only works if the police use it.
“You have got to have somebody available 24-7,” Buckley said. “They need to be called the first time there is any issue with the property.”
“There has to be somebody you can call at 3 a.m. and say ‘get down here and address this,’” Miller said.
If the city was able to track rental licenses and occupancy limits with some kind of database, it could also create a system of increasing penalties for those that continue to have problems.
In the meeting prior to the public hearing earlier this year, city staff had floated the idea of differentiating between long-term and short-term rentals in R-1 and MH districts. In the state of Maryland, long-term is defined as four months and one day.
However, the idea of banning rentals of four months or less caused considerable kickback from realtors and property owners, given that it would severely limit income potential.
This week, Miller proposed the idea of limiting single-family rentals to no less than one week, which would still allow summer income, but limit rapid turnover.
“What it does is put one renter in per seven days, whereas you could otherwise conceivably have two or more separate groups,” Miller said. “If there’s an issue, you can solve the problem and have a week’s peace rather than having it start up again with new people the next day.”
However, the commission encouraged everyone to follow-up with the police and other city departments to make sure problems are addressed in the long-term.
“When you call to complain, don’t just say it’s noisy, tell them there’s too many people here,” Buckley said.