By Donald Wittkowski
Culminating months of intense debate, City Council voted Thursday night to revoke an experimental type of housing that has polarized the community and ignited complaints from surrounding neighborhoods.
The 5-1 vote on the zoning ordinance eliminates the so-called “coastal cottages” from a redevelopment area where they were supposed to be clustered in the center of town along Haven Avenue.
The coastal cottage concept was originally approved by Council in 2013 as a way to create, smaller affordable homes that would attract more year-round residents, particularly younger families, to Ocean City.
However, the lone cottage project currently under construction has been shadowed by complaints that it has exacerbated flooding, parking and overcrowding problems in surrounding neighborhoods.
Known as Costeria Cottages, the project includes 18 homes along Haven Avenue between 12th and 13th streets. Although they are called cottages, the homes include two stories of living space and went on the market in late 2014 with sales prices ranging from $499,900 to $649,900.
Since the project began, some neighbors have grumbled that the cottages were too big, too expensive, too densely packed together and were out of character with the rest of the area.
“Congested and overbuilt housing is not what my neighbors want in Ocean City,” Ray McNeely, a Simpson Avenue resident who lives across the street from the cottage development, told Council at its meeting Thursday.
Another resident, Wayne Mozzo, asserted that the cottage project has not lived up to expectations to draw younger, year-round families to Ocean City.
“I think this is a failure, not a success,” said Mozzo, who lives on Pleasure Avenue about three blocks from Costeria Cottages.
Henry Balbirer, who lives in one of the Costeria Cottages, disputed the criticism. He defended the cottages as attractive, affordable homes that will make Ocean City a more appealing place to live.
“There’s nothing wrong with the cottages. They’re built well. They’re beautiful,” Balbirer said.
In voting to revoke the cottages, Council members cited the complaints they have heard from neighbors about flooding, parking and construction problems.
Council President Keith Hartzell said he spent Saturday and Sunday talking to nearly 30 neighbors and came away convinced that most of the community was opposed to the cottages.
“At the end of the day, I work for the taxpayers of Ocean City,” Hartzell said, adding that he believed his vote reflected community sentiment.
Hartzell said in an interview after the meeting that the zoning ordinance puts an end to coastal cottages “for now.” He did not rule out the possibility that Council could craft new measures to allow coastal cottages in the future, perhaps in some other location.
Hartzell stressed that the city will continue its efforts to develop more single-family homes, which are key to attracting year-round residents.
“We’re not saying goodbye to single-family homes,” he said.
The ordinance, though, includes a grandfather clause that allows coastal cottage projects that are under construction or have already received zoning or planning approvals from the city to still be built.
Councilman Peter Guinosso, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the ordinance, wanted to make it even tougher by proposing to eliminate the grandfather clause.
The ordinance has prompted a lawsuit by a former councilman-turned-builder who wants to develop two coastal cottage projects on property he owns.
John Flood, an Ocean City councilman from 1988 to 1996, has filed litigation alleging that the ordinance constitutes what he calls “illegal reverse spot zoning.”
Flood urged Council to kill the measure. He suggested replacing it with a new ordinance to oversee the cottages. In addition to his suit, Flood has filed a petition with the City Clerk’s Office that also opposes the ordinance.
Flood argued that there has been “no mass public outcry” against the cottages.
The ordinance eliminates coastal cottages from a redevelopment zone concentrated along Haven Avenue roughly between Sixth and 14th streets in the center of town. Known as the Drive-in Business Zone, it is need of revitalization.
Coastal cottages originally were envisioned as a new housing option in a town that has seen its year-round population fall as high-priced duplexes get purchased by investors.
In other business Thursday, Council paid an emotional tribute to local icon Frank C. Pileggi, who died in February at 86.
Pileggi, a Korean War veteran who helped found the city’s VFW Post 6650, was hailed in a proclamation as a man whose life “was dedicated to the service of his country and community.”
“Frank will live in our Post and our city forever,” said Mike Morrissey, commander of Post 6650.
Council members surrounded Pileggi’s daughter, Nancy, and son, Jimmie, while Hartzell read the proclamation. Both Nancy and Jimmie wiped away tears as Hartzell and others spoke fondly of their father.
“My dad was a great man, a good dad who loved his family,” Nancy said. “He loved Ocean City. He loved it so much that when we had the hurricanes, he didn’t evacuate.”
Hartzell, who praised Pileggi as a hometown hero, emotionally recalled the Sundays he spent with the elderly man who would become his close friend and mentor.
Even when Pileggi was in the hospital, shortly before he died, he was far more concerned about his children and friends than his own health, Hartzell said.
Hartzell affectionately called Pileggi a “tough old bird.”
“I thought he was going to live forever,” Hartzell said.