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Weekly rentals in Ocean City may be outlawed

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Renting a spacious home in Ocean City for a week — a popular summertime escape for many from the Baltimore area — may soon be outlawed.

Local officials are discussing a ban on short-term rentals across a number of large neighborhoods in the vacation town, as a response to complaints about rowdy parties and crowded streets. Though high-schoolers have for years descended in droves during Beach Week to sunbathe, dance and drink, some say the problem is spilling over to quieter districts of single-family homes such as Mallard Island and Caine Woods.

"What we're finding is our quality of life is being impressed on so to speak. ... I want to be able to enjoy my backyard, just like they want to enjoy their hooting and hollering," said Geoffrey Robbins. The dentist and former chair of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission lives in Mallard Island, a bayside enclave known for its powerful, politically connected year-round residents.

But the proposed change — which could bar owners in single-family residential districts from leasing homes for less than several months — has triggered an outcry from other property owners. They object to the potential loss of rental income from homes that can fetch thousands of dollars a week in high season.

"I was shocked," said Joe Torchia, 45, of Silver Spring, who has rented his Montego Bay property since 2003 and learned about the idea through his leasing company. "If there's a particular problem with a set of renters it should be dealt with, but not the whole town."

As vacation homes have gotten larger, other resort communities have grappled with similar problems with rowdy renters.

For example, Garrett County, where Deep Creek Lake is located, implemented a rigorous new rental license in 2006 after years of discussion. An ordinance that applies to rentals of two weeks or less, limited occupancy, mandated inspections to receive a license and imposed other standards, including bear-proof trash containers and parking requirements.

In Rehoboth, Del., complaints to the local government about short-term rentals have increased, and city officials are planning to meet to discuss the issue, said chief building inspector Terri Sullivan.

Ocean City's proposal, designed to "protect the character and compatibility" of neighborhoods, will be discussed Tuesday at a public hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

If approved, the changes would apply to neighborhoods such as Mallard Island, Caine Woods, Montego Bay and Little Salisbury, which represent about 3,845 homes, according to Blaine Smith, assistant director of the city's planning and zoning department. Just 246 of those homes are licensed by the city to rent, he said.

The neighborhoods include districts with small plats for mobile homes and wealthier communities populated by retirees and year-round residents. Homes range from $120,000 cottages to larger, multi-bedroom homes with pools — those that can bring thousands of dollars in weekly rent.

Since Jan. 1, 2013, the town has received 67 complaints from neighborhoods targeted by the new leasing proposal, including 13 that occurred on rental property, Smith said.

Ocean City already requires homeowners who rent to be licensed by the city and abide by ordinances that limit noise and occupancy. But those rules can be hard to enforce, because inspectors often arrive on the scene several days after police receive an initial complaint, Smith said. Others note that because of privacy issues, the town is having difficulty enforcing an ordinance that forbids more than four unrelated people from renting together.

Robbins, who urged the commission to take action on the issue in May after a house near his was being rented weekly, said the goal is to protect homes that have greater value thanks to the peace and quiet of the surrounding community.

"The purpose of zoning is to protect the values of property and get the highest and best use. … The highest, best use is to maintain quality of life," said Robbins, who has lived in the Mallard Island community since 1979.

The scope of the proposed changes is unclear. Smith said the town is looking at ways to regulate short-term rentals more closely in areas with detached, single-family homes, rather than banning them entirely, as neighbors originally requested. Sheila Dodson, executive director of the Coastal Association of Realtors, said she believes the city wants to bar rentals of less than four months.

Pam Greer Buckley, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said there is no specific ordinance up for discussion at Tuesday's hearing. "All options are on the table at this point," she said.

She added that the city needs to ensure it remains a place for year-round residents as well as visitors. "Ocean City is a small town, and we have a lot of factors that play a role in keeping it vital. We have to maintain viable single-family neighborhoods to have a viable town."

Buckley said she does not support any specific proposal at this point, but will make a decision on the issue after Tuesday's hearing.

Opponents — who include many real estate agents — said the proposal to ban short-term rentals is disproportionate to the problem and could damage the town's tourism base. Some said a ban would hurt Ocean City's desire to be known as a family-friendly resort.

"It would be horrible," said Grace Masten, owner-broker at Sea Grace at North Beach, Realtors. "To have single-family homes to vacation in is critical. It's critical to the town."

Dodson said her organization considers the question a "property rights issue."

"We are sensitive to the problems that the neighbors are perceiving that has created this, but we feel like this is way overkill," she said, adding that the Realtors association's members "should be turning out in force" at Tuesday's public hearing.

A proposed ban could also hurt property owners — many of whom are unaware of the discussion afoot and rely on rental income to cover the taxes and maintenance of their homes.

"It's a little bit ridiculous," said Patty Cates, 47, of Bel Air, who started renting her Montego Bay home this year. "If they change it, it's going to hurt us financially, I would think."

"If it's in a full-time neighborhood, I can understand people's concerns with the noise. They probably just dropped half a million dollars on a house and they want a quiet community, but if you decide to buy a house here, you have to understand it's a resort town," said Amy King, 38, who has owned and rented her property in Little Salisbury since 2009.

City Councilman Dennis Dare, who also serves as president of the Caine Woods Community Association, said he does not support a ban on short-term leases.

"It wasn't felt that rentals are that big of an issue," said Dare, one of the few council members to respond to questions about the topic. He thinks stronger enforcement is the solution.

"The noise situation is perennial," he said. "I think that's probably the root of this."

Gaithersburg resident Lisa Gorman, whose Teal Drive rental in Mallard Island launched discussion of the ban, said she was upfront about her plan to rent when she bought the house, which sleeps 17 and has a pool. The two-story, 3,450-square-foot house on a double lot — for which she paid nearly $560,000 in October 2013 — commands short-term rent as high as $5,000.

"I never would have purchased in the neighborhood had I known," she said. "I didn't want any restrictions. I thought Ocean City was a tourism town."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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