(Aug. 22, 2014) Although billing it as a public hearing wasn’t inaccurate, probably a better term for Tuesday night’s session at City Hall would’ve been an “airing of grievances.”
The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission heard a litany of complaints this week, not only regarding the possibility of code changes to the resort’s single-family zoning districts, but moreover about what seems to be a widespread lack of co-ordination and enforcement in any district when it comes to the problems associated with weekly rentals.
“This problem activity is not going on just in R-1 zones, it’s going on all over Ocean City as I’m sure you’re now aware,” said Jerry Milko of Holiday Real Estate.
“I don’t want another regulation,” said resident Joanne Cuomo. “All we need is regulations that people will follow and the police will actually come take care of.”
How to ensure this – whether it consists of a new regulation, or reinforcement of the old – is what the city will be grappling with in the coming weeks and months.
Tuesday’s crowd was standing-room-only in City Hall – but despite the number of participants, many who had signed up to speak before the commission declined to do so after others had already made the same arguments they had planned.
“This is intended as a finding of fact…and a needs assessment,” said Commission Chair Pam Buckley. “Please only speak if you have something new to say. This commission does not decide by plebiscite.”
The hearing, officially, was to garner public input on the possibility of changing the code regarding single-family residential (R-1) and mobile home (MH) districts. For many years, Ocean City has seen properties in neighborhoods of single-family homes being purchased and used for weekly vacationers – often dozens at a time in some larger properties. Given that many long-time resident owners are used to a quiet neighborhood, complaints about noise, trash, and other rude behavior by tourists abound.
As city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith pointed out in his introductory remarks, there is no dispute that “existing single-family neighborhoods should be protected from future development influences that could degrade their expected quality of life.”
This principle, theoretically, would apply to the planned use and character of any district, including commercial or industrial zones as well as less-restrictive residential areas.
In the case of R-1 and MH zone, the primary way in which the district is defined is by the caveat of “single-family use,” which 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.
Smith reviewed with the audience the U.S. Supreme Court case Village of Belle Terre vs. Boraas – a pivotal decision in the introduction of zoning laws in the United States. In the case, the court ruled that the municipality of Belle Terre, N.Y., was correct in preventing a homeowner from renting his single-family zoned property to a group of college students.
The village was justified, the court found, in limiting the use of a certain neighborhood to families, either defined by blood relations or as a small group of unrelated people living as a family unit, in order to protect the public good.
“In other words, there’s reason to protect single family neighborhoods,” Smith said. “There’s reason to treat single-family areas separately and the court found this as a valid purpose.”
The problem with such statutes, in Ocean City and elsewhere, is that they’re virtually unenforceable.
“As an enforcement official, we have to follow the constitution of this county,” Smith told the audience. “I cannot go into your home and accuse you of having too many unrelated people without cause.”
Enforcement from Smith and other zoning inspectors is typically done as a follow-up to police action, and typically after a noise complaint gives officers reason to investigate problem housing.
But this appears to be spotty at best. A large number of hearing participants reported having issues with how the police deal with noise calls.
“We make a call, and the police car circles the neighborhood with their windows up,” said Tony Marinari of the Little Salisbury Neighborhood watch. “They can’t hear a thing. There’s a huge party and they drive right by it.”
The Town of Ocean City requires any home or condo being rented to secure a noise permit, which comes with a numbered sticker used by police to track properties. Repeat violators are referred to the town’s Noise Board.
“I used to tell people that after two police calls, the owner would have to go to the Noise Board and they would take his permit away,” said 60th Street year-round resident John Medlin. “Later, I found out that’s not true. I found out they’ve never pulled anyone’s license.”
In the summer, Medlin said, it takes about an hour for the Ocean City Police Department to show up, and often they cannot identify the source of the noise, or can’t access the problem unit because of elevator or stair locks.
Several other speakers reported having the police arrive with lights and sirens, causing the noisy tenants to quiet down. Without noise, they were then told by police that there was no probable cause to enter the unit and cite the inhabitants.
Landlords and realtors also reported getting a less-than-effective police response to problems in their units, or only being told after-the-fact.
“I would’ve addressed the problem, but the police never contacted me,” realtor Paul Fried said about a group of problem tenants. “I filed to get the police reports, but I was not allowed to have them. Since I was not on the scene, they said I was not privy to any of those reports.”
“I found out from my neighbors [about a noise call],” said landlord Susan Eckstein. “Had I known that the police department had been there, I would have terminated the rental right then.”
The lead-up to this week’s outpouring of concern began earlier this year, when retired local dentist Dr. Geoff Robbins – himself a previous chair of the Commission – approached his former colleagues regarding a problematic weekly rental home in his neighborhood of Mallard Island.
The home was being advertised as sleeping 17 people, despite the technical restriction to no more than four unrelated persons. The city had so far been unable to address the issue in any concrete terms, and Robbins suggested the Commission institute a zoning change to set a minimum length on rentals in problem areas.
“I’m not here to impress my will on every other area [outside Mallard Island],” said Robbins. But some kind of minimum stay to discourage tourist lodging was the only practical solution, Robbins said, “unless the city commits to hiring more zoning enforcement officers and reworking the code enforcement and how the Noise Board works.”
Naturally, many of the area’s realtors are worried about the effect this would have on current and potential future rental properties in R-1 and MH zones. The consensus amongst agents and property owners Tuesday seemed to be that a short-term ban was too much.
“This would be akin to treating a rash with amputation,” said property owner Brad Maunz. “I believe the single-family rental unit adds to the appeal of Ocean City for a lot of families who want to come here.”
The question, then would be how to guarantee that properties are only rented to groups qualifying as “single-family.”
Many realtors shared that they have legal riders that all tenants must sign before assuming occupancy, which allow immediate eviction if the terms are broken.
“The short-term rental is actually the easiest for the agent or the property owner to regulate,” Milko said.
The city could make such a rider mandatory to a noise permit, supplementing the current requirement that all realtors or property owners have an empowered representative available to respond to complaints.
“You have to have it so that contact can go onsite and order to vacate right then and there,” Milko said.
This would all be dependent, of course, on enforceability.
“No one wants to add another regulation that may not be enforced better than the existing regulations,” said George Sellers, who rents out two units in Montego Bay. “Those people who aren’t doing it right will continue to ignore the laws and regulations no matter how many you make.”
But although many of the resort’s more conscientious realtors and landlords were in attendance Tuesday, residents were mostly worried about the ones who weren’t there.
“All the rosy pictures may not be totally rosy,” said resident Chris Cikanovich. “We have a family leaving our neighborhood because of all the ruckus.”
Despite being guaranteed that units would be renting only to families on his R-1 street, Cikanovich said he and his long-term resident neighbors are subjected to behavior “not quite what we would expect from families renting for a week.”
He suggested the city require a bond to be placed on all R-1 noise permits, which would be absorbed by the city if the owner or realtor had repeat violations.
Participants seemed to be divided over whether it was better to go through a rental broker or realtor.
“The very first group [the broker] rented to, which they don’t let you know who they are because they’re afraid you’ll just rent directly to them…was a bachelor party that really messed up my house and disturbed my neighbors,” said unit owner Laura Neuenhaus.
She has since started listing on her own.
“Absolutely nothing is being done to the perpetrators of the noise,” she said. “They are not ticketed or cited or anything. I had no idea what was going on until weeks later after they were gone and the security deposit had already been returned.”
According to Smith’s data, the city has 276 licensed rentals out of the 3,845 total R-1 and MH parcels in town. In past 19 months, 67 complaints have been logged against 13 different licenses.
But given that the city has no way of knowing how many unlicensed rentals still exist, and the frequent absence of police reports, it’s unclear how reliable these numbers are.
The Commission will hold deliberations on the topic at its Sept. 3 session, followed by the formulation of a recommendation to be forwarded to the Mayor and City Council.