By Clara Vaughn & Zack Hoopes
(Oct. 3, 2014) There’s a fine line between “annoying” and “criminal,” and anyone who was in Ocean City this past weekend will likely give you an earful as to just how razor thin it really is.
While relatively little serious crime was recorded over the span of this year’s H2O International car show – which does not take place within Ocean City, at least officially – the resort was inundated with complaints of general ill-behavior that came at a bad time for residents, most of whom were anxious to start enjoying the quieter shoulder-season.
“It was a nightmare for us as far as delivery,” said Ed Braude, owner of Fat Daddy’s, with restaurants on both Dorchester and 82nd Streets, “but it’s a tradeoff. You can’t be busy and not have traffic.”
By all accounts, the event – known to enthusiasts as H2Oi – saw significantly larger attendance this year than even in years past.
“We’re now looking at this event as being one of the largest, if not the largest, in the Town of Ocean City,” said OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro. “We have 51 weeks to work toward this event next year, and believe me, we’ve already started.”
While generally acknowledged to not be pinpoint-accurate, the city’s demoflush numbers, which estimate population based on wastewater flow, were up 12.4 percent for Sept. 27 and 28 this year, versus the last weekend in September 2013.
According to OCPD Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal, officers and citizens made 2,148 calls for service from Sept. 25 to 28, comparable to 2,207 over the Thursday-Sunday span last year. Arrests this year totaled 51 versus 54 last year.
But these numbers are well in line with other automotive events. Earlier this year, Spring Cruisin’ logged 2,138 calls for service and 50 arrests over the same four-day stretch, O’Neal reported.
Further, these numbers are comprable or lower than any other busy weekend with a younger group of visitors. Over the Thursday-Sunday span of the Dew Tour this year, the OCPD got over 2,400 calls for service.
Where H2Oi really stands out is in traffic collisions, with 43 reported. OC Bike Fest, just two weeks prior, saw only 11.
“Obviously, the event proved to be very challenging and very taxing on our resources,” Buzzuro said. “The majority of our field operations were committed to H2O.”
Although additional personnel were not called in beyond the already-sizable weekend shift, the OCPD had assistance from the Maryland State Police and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department.
“I do feel comfortable with the personnel that we have in the full-time force, plus the seasonal officers that are left, as well as the state and county, providing enough police presence,” Buzzuro said. “What we have to do is take a look at our tactics. We have to make sure that the tactics we implement are going to fit the situation.”
Other than generally heavy traffic, the most severe complaints about the event stemmed not from participants in cars, but from observers along Coastal Highway. Packs of spectators roved the streets, squatting – sometimes literally – on residents’ lawns, and in several cases using megaphones to shout obscenities at passersby.
“Enforcement has to be multi-dimensional,” Buzzuro said. “You have to look first at the motorists on Coastal Highway and the concern for public safety there, and then secondly at the sidelines, so to speak, whether it’s public or private property, which we’re very concerned about.”
This year, the department re-introduced the Trespass Enforcement Authorization Program (TEAP), which allows property owners to sign an affidavit authorizing police to enter their properties on suspicion of trespassers and take appropriate enforcement action.
The TEAP initiative was specifically targeted at H2Oi, and some of the large, under-used parking lots around town where spectators congregate.
“TEAP has been fantastic in terms of police response,” said Nancy O’Mera, director of property management at Continental Realty, which oversees the 94th Street Mall.
“The police department was there moving [the cars] out as soon as they got in,” O’Mera said. “This is the one event, out of all the car events, that cultivates the most people thinking that they can just be in your parking lot.”
The fundamental issue with the event is that it is not organized, at least within Ocean City. The show itself takes place at the Fort Whaley Campground, this year being the third iteration of the show to take place in Whaleyville and the 15th year for the show in Worcester County.
But the vast majority of participants sleep, eat, and party in the resort. Many do not even go to the H2Oi itself, instead opting to spend their time cruising Coastal Highway.
Many long-time participants say that the show itself, which is extremely well-run, by all accounts, has become less and less of a focal point in recent years as the event has become diluted with hangers-on.
A few VW clubs and promoters have attempted to organize events in town in past years, but found limited success due to the increasingly chaotic atmosphere.
“Over the last three or four years … we’ve seen a massive group of non-Volkswagen/Audi drivers coming into the city,” said Sam Dobbins, a photographer and head of the car-centric media company More Than More.
“Even in 2009 or 2010, you were hard-pressed to find a car that wasn’t Volkswagen or Audi,” Dobbins said. “Now, I feel like you are hard-pressed to find a car that is.”
A key culprit is social media, which not only spreads word of the weekend to a younger crowd, but has created a sort of “popularity contest” among drivers, Dobbins said.
“People see other people doing crazy [expletive] and they want to do it, too, because the people that are doing crazy [expletive] are getting a ton of attention,” Dobbin said. “I think they see their friends getting tickets for this and that (online) and it’s kind of turned into a contest, even though the gist of winning the contest is potentially going to jail.”
Posts under the hashtag “H2Oi” on Facebook back that notion. Though most are photos of tricked-out cars, other boast of arrests, and one photo shows a man “surfing” on top an OCPD cruiser.
Although they do receive an economic boost from the event, many businesses remain somewhat ambivalent.
“We were extremely busy,” said Jill Douglas, general manager of the Hampton Inn on 43rd Street. Although security was kept on for the event, Douglas said only one incident – a broken mirror – was reported during H2Oi.
On the flip side, “the traffic was horrendous,” Douglas said. “It was loud and it was horrible trying to go from 43rd Street all the way up to Fenwick.”
“It’s a mess,” Braude said. “I can understand both sides of it … but they still have to be good for the town money-wise.”
“It was definitely difficult to try to find vacancies for Saturday,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “It just seems to get busier each year.”
A few establishments have tried – unsuccessfully – to organize events capitalizing on the H2Oi. But the impression seems to be that attendees prefer the anarchy.
“We tried to make an event and then we realized, they didn’t want us to make it an event,” said Jeff Burton, general manager of the 45th Street Village. “They just wanted a place to park and play.”
This year, 45th Street attempted to charge for parking and offer a schedule of events at its restaurants.
“Most of the kids don’t want to come up to our restaurants and bars,” Burton said. “They want to sit in the parking lot and party. I don’t know if the problems we have here are worth the money I make off it.”