(May 9, 2014) Like the dwindling territory of an endangered species, the resort’s limited numbers of resident homeowners are finding their coveted neighborhoods slowly invaded by rowdy, habitat-destroying renters.
This was the appeal made Tuesday to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission by retired local dentist, and former commission chairman himself, Geoff Robbins, in regard to his neighborhood on Mallard Island.
“With a proliferation of rentals – in our community, about 10 percent of the houses are being occupied in this fashion – it does affect the property values and it affects quality of life,” Robbins said.
The Mallard Island area, with its central artery on Teal Drive, is zoned as an R-1 district, on which only “detached single-family homes” are permitted.
The intent of the district is to protect single-family residential neighborhoods, but Robbins submitted that the city’s often Byzantine zoning code does not create adequate protection to keep single-family homes from being used as income-generating weekly rentals.
“We chose to pay a higher price to live in an R-1 community, and in return we expect the city to protect us from things that we did not want to live around,” Robbins said.
“There are people who build single-family homes in multi-family districts or commercial districts, and that was their choice, but we chose not to for a reason.”
The city does have one protection against rental exploitation. To meet the definition of single-family, homes must be designed for the occupancy of two or more persons related by blood or marriage, or no more than four unrelated persons living together under a shared agreement and with a single kitchen facility.
However, this is scantly enforced. Robbins distributed copies of an ad form a local real estate brokerage advertising the house next to his as “sleeps up to 17 people.” Robbins said the home had roughly a dozen occupants two weeks ago, who were clearly not a single family, and thus he property was in violation of zoning.
“It’s not the job of Blaine [city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith] and his staff to go around and police properties every time someone calls in about too many people there,” Robbins said.
“It should be the job of the realtor. But if you look at the way the properties have developed, maybe it’s time for the city to create a district where renting is not allowed.”
“Property owners don’t know, and if the realtors aren’t telling them, they don’t realize,” said Commission Chair Pam Buckley.
Even if realtors are being honest, Commissioner Peck Miller said, it is hard for them to verify in advance who will be in the unit.
“You rent it to mom and dad, and then what comes down is not what you were expecting,” Miller said.
There are many R-1 districts across the county, he noted, that set a minimum stay on rentals in order to avoid short-term vacationers driving out residents. This is especially important in Ocean City, where the few resident property owners are typically long-time business and community leaders.
“We won’t have people who want to come to visit if we don’t have a community here,” Buckley said. “We don’t want everyone living in West Ocean City who wants to have a business here.”
“It destroys the neighborhood if you have weekly rentals,” said Commissioner Lauren Taylor. “But I’m not sure how many people are going to change their minds. They want the money. There has to be an education component to let people know they can report this and there can be a fine.”
The city can charge up to $500 per day for zoning violations, Smith said.
“I think we’re getting to the point where the hammer needs to drop on that,” Buckley said.
However, Smith later noted that enforcement by his office is a tricky subject, given that they are bound by the same Constitutional rules as any other agency. He cannot simply barge into anyone’s home on suspicion that five unrelated people are inside.
Many cities across the county have the same issue. In New York City, rentals of less than 30 days are banned unless one possesses a hotel license – but enforcement is impossible, and online owner-direct rental services such as Airbnb make the transactions undetectable.
Ocean City’s code does allow “home occupations,” such as tailors or music teachers, in R-1 districts – but explicitly excludes “tourist homes” from the home occupation definition, implying that the code originally intended to keep tourists out of that zoning designation.
In the interest of full disclosure, Ocean City Today Publisher Stewart Dobson owns a home on Teal Drive, and was present at the meeting Tuesday in support of Robbins.