By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Mayor Jay Gillian announced plans for Ocean City to have a consulting firm study potential locations for the construction of “one or more” parking garages on public property.
Speaking during a City Council meeting Thursday night, Gillian said that during the past few months he has talked with some business owners from both the Boardwalk and the downtown about the need for parking.
“Mostly what I tell them is really we’ve been focused on infrastructure and our stormwater management, and parking garages can be expensive,” he said.
However, the city has solicited a proposal from a nationally recognized parking consultant to study six potential city-owned sites for a parking garage, he said.
“The objective of the study will be to evaluate the possible layouts, the construction costs, the operating costs and potential revenue for one or more garages in several possible locations,” he told Council.
Gillian noted that he hopes to discuss the proposal in more detail at the next Council meeting Jan. 27.
In a related development, Council President Bob Barr announced the formation of a new parking and transportation committee chaired by Councilman Jody Levchuk. The committee will also include Barr and Council Vice President Tom Rotondi.
In brief remarks Thursday, Levchuk said he hopes the committee can produce some “great things” for the city.
At the Dec. 2 Council meeting, Levchuk originally brought up the topic of having the city explore the possibility of building a parking deck or parking garage that could be integrated into the community in a location that wouldn’t be obtrusive.
Levchuk, the city’s Third Ward councilman, stressed that it is only a preliminary idea that would need much more study by city officials, the business community and local residents before any decisions are made to move forward with such a project or reject it.
He believes something must be done to help ease Ocean City’s well-known shortage of parking during the peak summer tourism season. Parking can also be hard to find during major events in town during the off-season months, Levchuk pointed out.
A new parking garage would be critical in drawing more day-trippers to Ocean City and also freeing up more downtown parking spaces for shoppers along the Asbury Avenue retail corridor to help local businesses, Levchuk said in an interview after the Dec. 2 meeting.
Levchuk is co-owner of the Jilly’s family of shops on the Ocean City Boardwalk and downtown. He wants to see a quicker turnover of the metered parking spaces in the downtown district to improve the flow of shoppers along Asbury Avenue. A strategically located parking garage would help to do that, he believes.
Even after the height of the summer tourism season, Levchuk believes a parking deck or garage would be an asset. He said it could serve as a place for homeowners to shelter their cars when winter coastal storms strike Ocean City and unleash flooding.
In other business at Thursday’s meeting, Rotondi announced that he wants the city to develop a fair and standardized procedure for making appointments to the various boards and commissions that help run the local government, including the planning and zoning boards.
Rotondi stressed that he wants a “process” that would open up appointments to a wider pool of city residents and would also address complaints that the city’s boards are becoming “over-politicized.” It was a concern brought to Council at the previous meeting by the president of the zoning board and prompted Rotondi to seek a change with board and commission appointments.
Rotondi said he plans to bring a formal proposal to Council for its review. Among the issues Rotondi wants Council to consider is whether there should be term limits for appointees serving on the city’s boards and commissions.
“We’re going to tackle the term limits this year,” he said.
In December, Council voted 7-0 to approve an ordinance that puts term limits on hold until Dec. 31, 2022. The ordinance gives the governing body and Gillian’s administration a full year to possibly work out a new plan for just how long appointees should serve on boards and commissions.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said Council may consider a number of options for board and commission terms, including whether to abolish term limits altogether, to reinstate them or have appointees serve staggered terms.
Previously, any members of a board, commission or committee appointed by the mayor or Council could not be reappointed after serving two consecutive full terms.
A number of appointees would have been required to step down after their second consecutive term expired on Dec. 31, 2021, if Council had not approved the new ordinance.
A whole new crop of last-minute appointees would have been needed to fill the vacancies if the term limits had not been set aside.
In another matter at Thursday’s meeting, Council approved a contract for an environmental company, GEI Consultants Inc., to begin the cleanup of soil and groundwater contamination on property that the city recently acquired at 16th Street and Haven Avenue and at 109 16th Street.
Those two parcels were formerly owned by Palmer Center LLC, a group headed by John Flood, a real estate developer and former city councilman.
Last year, the city approved $3.1 million to buy the Palmer Center property at 109 16th Street. In addition, the city approved $2.5 million to buy the Palmer Center land at 1600 Haven Avenue.
Although the city now owns both sites, a court battle continues over the final amount that Flood’s company should be paid. The city is in court as part of its condemnation action to acquire the land through eminent domain.
The city plans to combine the former Palmer Center land with an adjacent site that was once a car dealership lot. The city acquired the former car dealership lot from the previous owners, Klause Enterprises, last year. Now, the city wants to use all of the property to create a swath of open space protected from housing development
As part of the land deal, an escrow account would be set up to require the former owners to pay for any environmental cleanup of the property, if needed, after the city took possession.
Speaking by Zoom during the Council meeting, Flood and his attorney threatened to file a series of lawsuits against the city unless Flood’s company is allowed to remediate any contamination from his former two properties instead of having the city’s contractor, GEI Consultants, handle the cleanup.
“My company is ready, willing and able to do the cleanup,” Flood said.
Flood’s attorney accused the city of denying Flood access to the property for the cleanup work. Flood has filed litigation asking the state Superior Court to compel the city to give his company access. City officials declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
A motion filed by the city in opposition to Flood’s litigation includes remarks by an environmental cleanup expert that asserts Flood’s proposed remediation plan would be “inadequate” to address the contamination.
Council went into closed session for about 15 minutes to discuss the controversy. After it reconvened in public session, it voted to approve the city’s cleanup contract with GEI Consultants for the former Palmer Center property.
In the process, Council rejected Flood’s proposal to table the contract to give more time for his company and the city to reach an agreement on the property’s cleanup.
It was not immediately clear Thursday night what may have been the source of the contamination. Although the property is currently vacant, a dry-cleaning business formerly was located at 16th Street and Haven Avenue, according to a report from the city’s environmental cleanup expert.