ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
The phased-in nature of the development can clearly be seen in this 1972 aerial photograph of Montego Bay. Developer Jim Caine’s layout for the community was limited even then by state restrictions on how much land could be filled.PHOTO COURTESY PAUL SMITH/OCEAN CITY DEPT. OF ENGINEERING(Oct. 12, 2012) In 1968, Bert Coble was one of the first of a new generation of Ocean City homeowners to discover that he had put a hefty down payment on what appeared to be a sinkhole.
“It was all mud and water,” Coble said of the lot he had purchased — for a princely first installment of $25 — in what local development baron Jim Caine had promised would be the best deal in resort property since the inlet was cut in 1933.
Caine’s project, dubbed Montego Bay, was to be far above — in both geographic location and infrastructure — what was even in the 1960s Ocean City’s rapidly aging downtown. The plan called for a massive subdivision of small, uniform trailer home lots made available to an ambitious American middle-class looking to invest in a second residence. The properties would be sold ready-to-go with city water, sewer, and everything necessary for modern utilities.
The first lots were carved out of the marsh on 130th Street at a time when Ocean City didn’t extend any further than the Boardwalk, which had been built to its current length after sustaining storm damage in 1962.
“There was nothing on Coastal Highway between 28th Street and here. It was completely open,” Coble recalled.
But early buyers found that the operation was not quite complete. Coble spent his first weekend in his new property on Memorial Day of 1969.
“I wanted to go home as soon as I got here,” Coble remembers.
Running water was not yet available. “They used to have watering stations on Coastal Highway. We filled up trash cans and brought them in on a wagon,” Coble said
But despite the rocky start, Coble kept coming. Shortly thereafter, while the land was still cheap, he went ahead and bought the lot beside his.
But the perseverance of buyers like Coble is what allowed Montego Bay to far exceed even Caine’s likely expectations, and become a community whose significance to the city is hard to understate. The development is now know as a haven for retirees and seasonal residents who live for at least six months per year in the resort, thus providing the town with a much needed population base.
And, with the upcoming election, this population gives Montego Bay a significant political influence. The tendency of City Hall to reference the community when appealing to the interests of the resort’s “common man” is hard to miss – the fiduciary welfare of “little old ladies up in Montego Bay” has become somewhat of a political phantom down on 3rd Street.
The development most likely has more registered municipal voters in a smaller geographic area than anywhere else in the city. Even if one assumes that only one in five of Montego Bay’s roughly 1,500 lots have two voting residents, it leaves the community with 600 votes. Given that Ocean City’s population of roughly 7,000 has a voter turnout rate in the low 20-percentile range (22.2 percent in the 2010 election) Montego Bay could nearly carry the entire contest on its shoulders if it so chose.
Much of what facilitated this population has been the gradual transition from an area that offered a very low entry price, into one that now offers the opportunity to live much better than its intended value would represent.
Darryl Greer of Resort Housing Group has built much of this change himself over the past 18 years in which he’s done construction in Montego Bay. Although still technically zoned as a mobile home district, the development has been granted several exceptions over the decades for larger and larger structures. Sometime in the 1980s, the zoning was expanded to allow for doublewide trailers. And in 1993, another change was made to allow in-place – or “stick built” – construction to be done.
“I don’t know if they’ll ever make it residential, but they’ve just let people do what’s common sense with the property,” Greer said. “There’s better value retention [in the stick built homes], and it’s easier to maintain.”
One of the major long-term appeals of rebuilding a lot, Greer noted, is energy efficiency. The stick-built homes he has been doing in the development are highly effective in terms of lowering heating and air conditioning costs. The mobile homes that were there before were designed only for periodic use in the summer and had little effective insulation for winter.
Caine had also built the development with the future in mind. Although the practice is now common, he was one of the first in Ocean City to gain subdivision rights by offering to build the infrastructure that the city could not.
“He came to the town saying, ‘I’ll put in the streets, the water and the sewer, dredge the lots. And when they’re finished I can sell them and you can make taxes off of them.’ He didn’t say it like that, of course, but that was the basic idea,” city Associate Engineer Ken Jordan said.
Caine built the development in sections, securing his profits from one section before moving on to the other.
“He had to build everything up to the city’s standard. And then he had to turn them [the infrastructure] over to the city. Any subdivision is done the same way. But he had a way of looking ahead,” Jordan said.
The result, Greer said, is that prospective buyers are drawn in by the combination of a close-knit, more residential community that also offers the chance to build to a much more luxurious standard than the “mobile home” moniker would suggest.
“It’s the community that gets people. It’s just a lot more inviting than a lot of places,” Greer said. “I had one couple with the budget to go anywhere in town. She spent six months looking around and she ended up in Montego Bay.”
Many of Greer’s clients, however, are not newcomers. Many are assuming the family vacation spot from their parents and taking the opportunity to expand their accommodations.
“A lot of kids are taking over. The family had the lot and now the kids are building it up,” Greer said. “The older generation maybe didn’t want the change, but the younger one did.”
Coble is certainly not such a case. He is one of five of Greer’s current clients who are second-time builders, a practice that Greer said has been more common since the economic slump gave less of an incentive to develop new property. Instead, people have concentrated on improving what they have.
Coble has lived in one of his properties while the adjacent one is being renovated. Both of his lots can now accommodate multiple generations, and Coble occupies at least one for most of the year, spending only the Thanksgiving-through-New Year stretch in Annapolis.
“I guess we’re gluttons for punishment,” he concluded.