(Jan. 25, 2013) The Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission discussed the following items during its Jan. 23, 2013 session:
Substation plan approved
The commission approved the final site plan for the expansion of the Delmarva Power substation that occupies the block between 137th and 138th Streets, between Derrickson and Sinepuxent Avenues.
Use of the property for the enlarged substation, which will feature new voltage-regulation equipment, was conditional upon the city’s approval, per zoning codes that specify that certain uses must be determined to not have an adverse impact on a given neighborhood. The hearing process for this approval, begun last August, was only finalized this month after considerable objection from homeowners in the Caine Woods neighborhood, which surrounds the substation.
As a result, the city’s approval of the use came with requirements that the company monitor noise and electromagnetic radiation levels.
The commission’s only concerns about the property’s physical layout, however, resulted from Delmarva Power’s previous pledges to beautify and maintain the property. Commissioner Peck Miller asked than an irrigation system for the landscaping that is to surround the facility be made a condition of the plan’s approval.
“The design is great if it comes to completion the way its intended,” Miller said. “But you have to have irrigation to give those trees a fighting chance.”
Although construction of the perimeter wall and the installation of landscaping will be done by the start of the summer, work on the equipment inside the facility will take until the end of the year, according to company representatives. The public will be unable to see most of the process, by 137th Street will likely be used as a staging area when parts are brought in.
“There’s a possibility that you might shut that whole street down during the heavy equipment stage,” said Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith. “But traffic still flows around the block even without that street.”
Height standard considered
Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith briefed the commission on considering an amendment to the city’s code that would change the starting point for the measurement of a building’s height.
In many of the city’s zoning districts, the maximum height for structures on normal sized lots is 50 feet and five stories, but Smith said the actual height of a building can vary greatly. Until the mid-1980s, Smith said, the city simply measured up from the soil on the lot, resulting in builders piling up dirt at the site to give their buildings a little extra headroom. Later, however, the height was standardized to the peak elevation of the adjacent roadway.
“When we went to street grade, it reduced the abuse factor a bit, if you will,” Smith said.
However, FEMA flood codes, which the city abides by to get the maximum discount on federal flood insurance, specify that buildings in flood-prone areas have to have a certain amount of free space above what the agency has determined to be the floodwater height.
This means that builders often have to incorporate at least three to five feet of freeboard into their designs, reducing habitable building height and hampering the use of many customary architectural designs. This could be remedied by instead measuring building height from the FEMA minimum floor level.
“It’s not an astronomical amount [in terms of increasing building height], but it makes a big difference to the builder,” Smith said.
The change was suggested by Commissioner Lauren Taylor, who noted that her own project had been forced to lower its ceiling heights in order for everything to fit within the requirements.
“If you want quality hotels and quality properties, you don’t do these low ceilings,” Taylor said.
“All the coastal communities that I’ve been in have moved to FEMA flood height as the starting point for building height,” said Matt Margotta, the recently hired Director of Planning and Community Development.
The commission voted to move the change to the public hearing stage.
Mini golf favored
The commission gave a favorable recommendation to the idea of allowing miniature golf as a conditional use in the downtown mixed-use “DMX” zoning district, meaning that a course could be built if specific plans were approved by the city. Currently, any such use is barred under city zoning code.
This omission, however, stands in contrast to how the area was zoned before the DMX area was created in 2002, according to Smith. A course stood for many years in the Trimper’s amusement park on the east side of Baltimore Avenue and South First Street, when that area was a special amusement district. The famous “Ice Golf” course was located next to the White Marlin Condos on the bayside for many years as well, when that area was part of the marine zoning district.
The idea of re-introducing mini golf as an allowed use was raised by the Trimper family, which has plans to allow Old Pro Golf to construct a course on the property opposite its downtown amusement park and adjacent to the historic Henry Hotel. The lot has been used for parking and storage ever since the “Tank Battle” ride that was located there closed down many years ago.
“It’s always been an amusement-related property, so we thought it was just an error that they couldn’t build a property related to that,” said local attorney Regan Smith, who was representing the Trimpers.
Adding mini golf as a conditional use does not necessarily give one the right to build any course anywhere downtown, however, as the city still has the right to review and refuse any plans it finds to have an adverse affect on the surrounding neighborhood.
“It gives us enough design control, since we are so developed, we need to protect what is there now,” said Commission Chair Pam Buckley.
Commissioner Lauren Taylor recalled that the elimination of several land uses from the DMX district was largely motivated by the city wanting to encourage then-lucrative hotel construction.
“It was a better use of the property, as a tax base, because they [golf courses] took up so much space for not much return,” Taylor said. “But obviously, times have changed.”
“Hopefully the extent of ‘mixed-use’ will be determined by the economy, and not by us,” Buckley said.
The addition of mini golf as a conditional use will have to be approved by the mayor and City Council before being enacted.