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Ocean City

Tensions rise over house rentals to disorderly tenants

(July 4, 2014) As summer wears on, issues surrounding the rental and overcrowding of nominally single-family homes appear to be getting even more heated for all parties involved.

So much so, that the rental agency at the eye of the initial complaint is referring all inquiries to its lawyer.

“It’s become very, very controversial,” said a representative from Central Reservations. Attorney Randy Coates did not respond as of press time.

However, it appears that some realtors and rental agents in the resort are catching a backlash from the owners of the homes, who claim that they were never made fully aware of the zoning restrictions involved with their properties – and that rental brokers have turned a blind eye as long as the money is right.

“I feel totally duped in this whole thing,” said homeowner Lisa Gorman. “I’ve said to my agent, ‘call these people [renters], if they’re not families they can’t be here.’ But they’re not interested in vetting them as long as they pay.”

For many years, Ocean City has seen properties in neighborhoods of single-family homes being purchased and used for weekly vacationers – often dozens at a time in some larger homes. Given that many long-time resident owners are used to a quiet neighborhood, complaints about noise, trash, and other rude behavior by tourists abound.

“It’s often the natural progression for real estate,” noted Sheila Dodson, Executive Director of the Coastal Association of Realtors. “What we see in Ocean City mimics what we saw in Wicomico County and Salisbury with the college encroaching into neighborhoods.”

Often, such issues are calmed via the issuance of noise violations, which in Ocean City go on the rental license record of each property registered with the city.

But recently, residents of R-1 zoning districts – which permit only detached single-family homes – have argued that the town can, and should, bring a stronger case against problem properties via the zoning code.

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.

This clearly indicates that large groups of unrelated persons are a zoning violation – but one which it is almost impossible for city zoning inspectors to verify.

Additionally, 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.

If the city wished, it could argue that renting out one’s home constitutes a home occupation of running a tourist home, and is thus an illegal business. But it appears this statute has never been enforced.

At the May 9 meeting of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, retired local dentist and former P&Z Commission Chair Geoff Robbins suggested that if the city was unable or unwilling to enforce these zoning statutes, it should place a minimum period on R-1 rentals so that only long-term, semi-permanent residents could live there as was intended by the zoning code.

According to city Planning and Zoning Director Matt Margotta, the city is now keeping a stricter eye on nuisance properties, but is skeptical of any punitive code changes.

“We’ve developed a list of properties that we’re keeping our eye on,” Margotta said. “That’s the first thing to do, before we see if we even need to change any ordinances.”

“I’d rather not have to take care of it via the zoning code,” Margotta noted. “All the rules [Robbins and his neighbors] want to see enforced are already on the books. The problem is, no matter what, people going wild is people going wild, and that’s hard to regulate.”

If enough noise complaints are passed on to City Hall from the Ocean City Police Department, Margotta noted, the city always has the option to not renew the rental permit on a given property.

Even the suggestion of a crackdown has caused concern for many property owners, who suggested that the rental agents they’ve paid to solicit their properties should be taking more responsibility for who is staying there.

“If the city’s intent is to restrict this, we’ve got to inform people,” Gorman said. “I’m terrified that they’ll change the zoning laws when I’ve already put down money on this investment.”

Ocean City Today also recently received a letter from Susan and Steven Graham, non-resident owners of a north-end property that they planned to rent out until they relocated to Ocean City for retirement.

“We were assured that [the rental agent] would screen the renters and find nice families to live in our home on a weekly basis,” the Grahams wrote. “After thousands of dollars of damage, we were told by our neighbors that there were at least 20 people in our home one week and several more another week.”

“We don’t want to jeopardize our neighborhood and we are counting on the rental company that we are paying a high price for them to screen the renters and accept the responsibility of keeping our home from being damaged and causing the neighbors any anguish,” the Grahams wrote, noting that they are now “concerned about the R-1 zoning and the chance that we could no longer rent our home because the rental companies are allowing this in our neighborhood.”

Margotta said the city has begun proactively contacting rental agents regarding the issue.

“We’ve sent documents out to a couple organizations,” he said. “The number of unrelated occupants clause is in our code already, and [the rental companies] are definitely not supposed to do that.”

Although previously unaware of the issue, Dodson said that CAR was communicating with its members.

“If anyone from the public ever has a problem with a member realtor, they can come to us,” she said.

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