Noise Board gets bigger stick after difficult summer rental season

Fines boosted to $1,000; permits will be rejected if no rental agent provided

ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer

(Nov. 9, 2012) After what was described as a particularly tumultuous summer in terms of rental housing disturbances, the City Council has given the go-ahead to a series of revisions that will tighten the town’s noise code and give more hitting power to its regulatory body, the Noise Board.

Board Chairman Brett Wolf appeared before the council Monday to propose changes that would “provide the Noise Board with the mechanisms necessary to do our job.”

The idea of the board, as per the city’s charter, is to “ensure that only those owners of real property situated within the corporate limits of the town, who exercise due diligence in controlling noise on or emanating from their property, shall be permitted to use their property to provide temporary shelter to the town’s transient population and temporary residents.”

For practical purposes, this means that the board has the ability to issue and not issue rental permits to housing units that are to be used for tenants of under one year’s duration. This permit comes with a serial number that can be used by the board and the Ocean City Police Department to track and evaluate noise issues from any given property.

The board has the power to call before it problem permit holders, in order to work out means of noise mitigation. It also has the power to levy fines, in cases where landlords have been deemed inadequate in correcting noise problems despite multiple reports from police.

Wolf’s first difficulty with the board’s ability was that owners were still difficult to contact, despite the institution of physical permit stickers that owners affix to the doors of units for police reference.

“What we’ve found, continuously over the years, is that when people come to the noise board, their complaint is that they weren’t notified in a timely manner and couldn’t’ address the problem properly,” Wolf said.

“The stickers were supposed to solve that, via the police … but what we found was that property owners were not providing emergency contact info and complaints were still being issued [without anywhere to send them to].”

The city’s rental permit applications require that property owners who do not live in Ocean City provide a “rental agent” whom the police can contact to assist with any problems in the short term.

Apparently, many applicants were not providing this contact, but their permits were still being processed by city staffers who did not realize the importance of the information.

“Therein lies the issue,” said City Manager David Recor. “We have not been uniformly requiring the residential agent. We’ve been taking the check without the residential agent … I think we simply need to enforce the code the way it is written and not accept the application if it’s not complete.”

Wolf also suggested that the term “residential agent” be changed to “emergency contact” to convey more clearly the purpose of the information.

“We don’t want people to go out an think that they have to hire a Realtor,” Councilman Joe Hall said.

Mayor Rick Meehan also requested that the permit forms have “required” noted next to the residential agent/emergency contact line, and – if the city moves to an online permit – set the system up so applications will not be sent unless the field is filled.

Wolf also requested an expansion of the board’s ability to fine, which is currently set at $400 per infraction. He believed that a fine of $1,000 be allowed, as well as an additional $1,000 fine for those property owners who do not appear for a board hearing after two or more noise incidents. Additionally, Wolf asked that the board be allowed to levy a $2,500 fine for non-compliance after three incidents.

The last element of the request could not be done, City Solicitor Guy Ayres said, since state law regulates the power of municipalities to fine, and sets a cap of $1,000.

But Wolf still believed that the possibility of multiple $1,000 fines would still be sufficient, noting that the board very rarely resorted to punitive measures. The board levied its first fine, that Wolf was aware of, this summer on a particularly difficult property.

“It appears that we failed to maintain the peace and quiet with respect to this particular property,” Wolf said. “Usually, we don’t get to this point. The fine was levied after the third incident.”

Councilman Joe Hall was initially reluctant to boost the fines, since they had so rarely been used.

“We haven’t really been giving the existing fine a chance to work … it’s an enforcement issue and a use issue, not an amount issue,” Hall said. “We’re not using the tool we have, but we’re still buying a bigger tool.”

But Wolf countered that having the threat of a large fine was more desirable than the threat of pulling an owner’s license, which the board did not want to have to do.

“You lose the ability to house summer residents that the community needs,” Wolf said. “The situation isn’t one of taking the license to prove a point.”

“We need a big stick to make this work, and $1,000 is a pretty big stick,” said Council Secretary Lloyd Martin.

“I’ll go with the increase, but if you don’t use it, it won’t work,” reiterated Hall.

Wolf said that the board was not looking to levy a fine – or multiple fines – against the majority of offenders, partic- ularly those who own a small number of properties that are not for any enterprise purpose.

“People that own multiple buildings or buildings with multiple units [are the issue],” Wolff said. He also noted that the industry of temporary housing was becoming more complex, often to its detriment.

“Property owners have started to sublease their properties,” Wolff said. “Someone offers $50,000 for a summer. [The owners] take their $50 grand, wash their hands of it, and that person who paid the $50,000 goes and contacts an international student agency and pack it full.”

Owners, Wolf said, subsequently deny responsibility for the property and only move to resolve noise issues after the summer is over. The additional $1,000 for non-response hopes to solve this.

“This is for those that ignore the certified letter [requesting they appear before the board],” Meehan agreed, “because they know their tenant is going to be gone. That’s something you need, because they’re absolutely working the system. [The problem] stretches out to the end of the summer and then nothing can be done.”

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