By Donald Wittkowski
Ocean City may push pause on “Coastal Cottage Concept” to study the impact this new generation of smaller, more affordable homes may have on the community.
City Council took the first step Thursday night by introducing an ordinance that would remove the cottages from the Drive-in Business Zone, an area concentrated along Haven Avenue that is considered in need of redevelopment.
The ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing and final Council vote on March 24. Council members said they are anxious to receive public input about the cottages before they take a final vote.
“This has been a hotbed issue,” Council President Keith Hartzell said. “There’s a lot of people for it and a lot of people against it.”
Hartzell said he believed the city should undertake a study of the possible long-term impacts of the cottages because of their potential to profoundly reshape the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s a tough word to say we’re abolishing it. To me, we’re putting it on hold,” he said.
Hartzell’s remarks echoed the comments of other Council members who voted in favor of introducing the ordinance Thursday.
Councilman Peter Guinosso was the lone dissenter in the 6-1 vote. Guinosso said he prefers to have the Planning Board take the lead on the issue and then come back to Council with any recommended changes for the development of Coastal Cottages.
City Business Administrator Jim Mallon told Council that Mayor Jay Gillian also wants to “take a pause” with the cottages, allowing for further study and possible refinements with their construction requirements.
Mallon added that the Mayor supports the idea of having Coastal Cottages complementing the housing market, but doesn’t want them to become the “new norm.”
The lone Coastal Cottage project that is currently being developed in Ocean City would be grandfathered in under the new ordinance. In addition, the measure would not kill pending projects that have already applied for local approvals, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson explained.
“Any pending application will not be affected by this ordinance,” McCrosson said.
Council approved the concept of Coastal Cottages in 2013 as a way to attract more year-round families to town. The cottages would be smaller and more affordable, making them particularly appealing to young families. They would be an alternative to the large duplexes that have come to dominate parts of the city in recent years.
The cottages would be concentrated in the Drive-in Business Zone, which includes Haven Avenue as the main spine. The zone’s boundaries are roughly between Sixth and 14th streets, city officials said.
McCrosson noted that Coastal Cottages are a centerpiece of efforts to revive parts of the Haven Avenue corridor with new development.
“That zone was dead. There was no development at all,” she said.
McCrosson said that the project, known as “Costeria Cottages”, is considered a success, but more time is needed to refine the building standards for the smaller homes, including whether they should have decks or should be built at a lower height.
Costeria Cottages includes 18 small homes along Haven Avenue between 12th and 13th streets.
Mallon told Council that 12 of the Costeria Cottages have been sold so far or are under contract. Of those, eight have been bought by families that intend to live in Ocean City year-round.
In other business Thursday, Council got its first detailed look at the mayor’s proposed $74.2 million municipal budget for 2016. Council is expected to formally introduce the budget in March and hold a public hearing and final vote in April.
City Finance Director Frank Donato sketched out the expenses, revenues and taxes that are proposed in the spending plan.
The budget calls for a penny increase in the local property tax rate. For the owner of the typical home assessed at $500,000, that would mean an extra $55 in local property taxes in 2016.
Donato stressed that Gillian’s administration had hoped to avoid any tax hike at all, but a $1.2 million decrease in the amount of funding the city receives back from the public library caused the penny increase.
The budget reflects Gillian’s priority for more capital projects to upgrade what he has described as the city’s long-neglected infrastructure. The mayor has been pushing for more roadway construction and drainage improvements in flood-prone areas, as well as an extensive dredging program for the clogged lagoons along the back bays.
Council approved a $17.5 million bond ordinance Thursday to get some of those projects underway this year. Big-ticket items include $10 million for dredging, more than $2 million for upgrades to the Boardwalk and $800,000 for design and engineering work on roadway and drainage projects.