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Montego Bay finds further de-restriction to be a contentious topic

(Jan. 4, 2013) The gradual, decades-long liberalization of the restrictions governing Ocean City’s largest permanent resident community are likely to see another landmark deregulation this year, although the change has not been without its confusions and complications.

A referendum will be taken this spring among residents of North Ocean City’s Montego Bay development to see if they support the removal of the deed restriction that limits the width of homes there to 24 feet.

Because deeds to properties in the community are tied, as a condition of ownership, to the governance of the Montego Bay Civic Association, the development is able to enforce land use laws that can be, if so desired, more restrictive than those of the city.

The association was created when the late Ocean City developer Jim Caine first subdivided the land in the late 1960s.

But in a letter to the editor previously published in this paper, Montego Bay resident Andrea Albrecht said that the MBCA Board of Directors was jumping the gun by allowing a 25-foot-wide home to be built in the community prior to the change being put to popular vote.

The difficulty comes from the fact that, by the city’s standard, a 25-foot-wide home is perfectly acceptable to be placed on a 40-foot-wide lot, which is the standard parcel size in Montego Bay. City zoning code only specifies an aggregate of 15 feet of side setback, with a minimum of five feet on one side.

“If you subtract 15 from 40, you can build a 25-foot house,” said city Zoning Administrator and Assistant Director of Planning, R. Blaine Smith. “I can’t deny the permit because of some deed covenant. That’s a civil matter. I wouldn’t have any standing in court if I tried to enforce somebody else’s standard.”

Work on the property’s foundation had already begun before the MCBA board approved a size exemption on Dec. 8.

“I think they would’ve preferred that I held the permit until they resolved their civil matter, but even then I can’t do it,” Smith said. “I would be putting a liability on the city by not signing the permit. I had to sign it by law, in all fairness.”

Despite the objections of residents such as Albrecht, the MBCA board seems to maintain that larger-than-specified homes have been an unwritten standard since the 1990s, when the area’s mobile home zoning was modified to allow homes built in-place, instead of the mobile or pre-fabricated homes it had previously been limited to.

“I think their letter to the editor was very misleading, because they didn’t include the part about the board having the discretion to waive the standard,” said MCBA Secretary Tony Kendrick.

Several homes on lots larger than 40 feet are much wider than restrictions allow, but have been historically waived by the board, according to Kendrick.

“When they [the MCBA board] approved the plans for the odd-size lots, they went with the city setback of 15 feet instead of the self-imposed Montego Bay setback of 16 feet … citing the special circumstance of having an odd-size lot,” Kendrick said. “Since previous administrations had approved them, it sort of tied the hands of the current board to follow suit.”

The effect of the change, Kendrick said, is to say “regardless of lot size, we’re going with the city setback rules.”

But Albrecht maintains that homes over 24 feet have never been the norm for standard 40-foot lots.

“Yes, there are 25 foot+ houses here, but not on 40 x 90 standard lots,” she wrote in a further email to Ocean City Today. “If the lot is oversized, the owner has gotten permission to build according to lot size. Having been on the board for a long time, I know that none were approved for a 40 x 90 lot.”

When originally conceived by Caine, Montego Bay’s lots came with extensive restrictions that limited building on the property to nearly identical single-family, mobile-style homes, with the idea of creating a “small town” neighborhood in an area burgeoning at the time with high-rise condos.

But as the years went by, more and more owners desired to expand their homes beyond the limits Caine had imposed, requesting changes to both the MCBA board and the city, which has changed the zoning restrictions or mobile home parks – which Montego Bay still technically is – at the request of Montego Bay residents.

The biggest change came in 2009, when the city lifted mobile home zoning restrictions than banned habitable attic spaces and increased the allowable roof pitch to 7:12, essentially allowing the construction of 1.5-story homes.

“We went to the Mayor and Council after quite a bit of deliberation to have habitation in the attic spaces,” Smith said. The previous pitch limit of 5:12 was instituted in the 1980s, he said, because Nanticoke prebuilt doublewide homes had such an incline. These structures were also 24 feet wide, hence the currently debated restriction that attempted to bar any other kind of non-standard home.

The opening of such restrictions has, in the past, been viewed by some Montego Bay residents as a betrayal of the community’s original design.

“Nobody is trying to ‘outlaw’ the old-style mobile homes, per se,” Smith said. “But it has evolved into a larger residential community. They have a good product up there.”

“We’re tired of internal bickering,” Kendrick said. “That’s why there’s strong interest to go along with what the city zoning codes are an not have this extra bit of our own.”

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