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Pay to play in Ocean City

In the off-season, Ocean City often adds some new feature for tourists: a miniature golf course perhaps, a seafood restaurant or maybe a bar that caters to the beachgoing crowd. But here's a possible addition that might not be so welcome — parking meters north of 10th Street.

On Friday, the Ocean City Council is expected to be briefed on a proposal to create a whopping 4,800 paid parking spaces. The most ambitious version of the plan would require visitors to pay for parking at any space along the streets on the Atlantic Ocean side of Coastal Highway from 10th Street to the Delaware line.

Much like parking in Baltimore, motorists would pay for spaces through a kiosk that accepts both cash and credit cards and issues tickets that are placed on the vehicle dashboard. Smart phones or wireless tablets could also be used to pay for parking online.

The plan could bring in as much as $2.3 million in new revenue for Ocean City, which is struggling to find ways to pay for services without raising its property tax rate. Alternative sources of revenue, such as trash collection or storm water-related fees, would likely prove even less popular with the council and with local residents.

But while the parking meter proposal is likely to draw fire — particularly at a time when Ocean City is anticipating an upswing in visitors dislodged from competing coastal attractions in New Jersey that were damaged by last year's Hurricane Sandy — it also makes a lot of sense. From Fenwick Island to Lewes, Delaware resorts already charge for parking under similar circumstances, with little or no effect on the demand for a space near the beach.

Two circumstances are driving Ocean City's dilemma. The first is the rapid development of inland communities like West Ocean City. That's increased the demand for parking spaces near the beach. Along with the usual day-trippers, these visitors have little choice but to drive to Ocean City, Assateague or the Delaware coast to experience the beach first-hand.

But are they paying their fair share of the cost of maintaining that beach? Ocean City spends more than $3 million on beach replenishment each year and about $2 million annually on lifeguards. Both are financed primarily by the town's property tax (46 cents per $100 of valuation), so those who don't own property in town get off scot-free.

Meanwhile, the second and perhaps bigger issue for Ocean City is its continuing problem with double-taxation and Worcester County's unwillingness to address it. The resort's property owners face the same tax rate as the rest of the county but don't receive corresponding services. It's Ocean City that provides such things as police protection, a fire marshal and a recreation department.

That's a complaint often heard by Maryland municipalities, but it's worse for Ocean City for this reason: Most property owners don't live there and therefore have no say in who is elected to office in Worcester County. As a result, the county pays Ocean City about $3 million a year to cover these costs instead of the $17 million or so that the town deserves, according to one recent consultant's report.

Nobody enjoys paying for parking, but it's difficult to believe that $5 or so a day would cause anyone to stop driving to the beach. Indeed, it might actually open up premium parking spaces that are now hogged by local residents and provide easier access to visitors.

The chief hurdle may simply be a reluctance to change the town's long-standing tradition of free parking, particularly in North Ocean City. Bayside residents are among those who have grown accustomed to driving to the ocean block and parking without charge. Would this take a bit of the carefree quality out of Ocean City's image?

One compromise would be to install the metered spaces in phases, beginning with just 10th to 27th streets in the first year. Another might be to consider selling residential permits instead of using meters on the ocean block, a common policy in the Delaware resorts. In either case, paid parking will only be in effect during the summer season.

Clearly, the best solution would be for Worcester County to provide a fairer differential to Ocean City. But short of action by state legislators (who do, after all, represent a lot of the resort's absentee property owners), that's unlikely. Better to take a measured approach and concede that times are changing and parking is no longer free. Dedicate that money to maintaining the beach and roads, and visitors will have little to gripe about.

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