Summer vacations can be like overly long parties — fun for the invited but not always for neighbors and other bystanders. That has always been the challenge for those who live year-round in popular vacation destinations — tourists can simultaneously be loved and loathed.
This conflict appears to be at the heart of a proposal scheduled to be heard Tuesday night by the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission to limit short-term rentals in some of the town's most prestigious addresses. The proposal would mean properties in neighborhoods like Montego Bay and Mallard Island could still be rented out for several months but not for a week or two, which is how most owners market their vacation homes.
This would not apply to all Ocean City homes, town houses and condominiums but to an estimated 3,845, of which less than 7 percent are licensed as rental properties. And it's not hard to understand what motivated the proposal — vacation renters can be loud, messy, drunken and worse. Those who have chosen to retire at the beach or are otherwise looking for a quiet retreat may not always find it living next door to a bunch of recent high school graduates celebrating "Senior Week" in June or just the run-of-the-mill hordes of obnoxious vacationing families of July and August who occupy eight parking spots on a cul-de-sac with ten spaces.
Since January of last year, Ocean City has received at least 67 complaints from the neighborhoods in question, although just 13 occurred on rental properties, according to officials. That's not exactly an epidemic but certainly a sign that vacationers are capable of being a boorish lot — or at least engaging in behavior unappreciated by neighbors.
The problem with the plan is that it is a classic case of swatting flies with sledge hammers. People often purchase homes in places like Ocean City with the understanding that they will be able to generate income as rental properties — not necessarily buying them purely as investments (although that happens, too) but expecting rental income to help offset the mortgage or insurance costs.
Barring such rental arrangements could have a disastrous effect on the very neighborhoods the proponents seek to preserve if it forces owners to sell, lowers property values or even reduces how much money is invested in maintenance and upkeep. There's also no guarantee that longer term renters are any better behaved than those who visit for a week.
That doesn't mean Ocean City should ignore the complaints, of course. If visitors (or anyone else for the matter) is a nuisance — violating the noise ordinance, for instance, with loud music in the middle of the night — they ought to be ticketed and fined. And there should be penalties applied to property owners who do not properly police their tenants as well — perhaps even a loss of license if they are found to be repeat offenders.
But to deny people who purchased vacation homes on the assumption they could rent them out the opportunity to do so is fundamentally unfair — and unwise. Ocean City has become an increasingly popular place to live and retire, but it is still a tourist town with all the benefits and responsibilities that entails.
The benefits should not be taken lightly — hundreds of thousands of tourists pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Ocean City's economy each year and make possible many of the amenities that full-time residents enjoy. Those rental dollars don't just get pocketed by out-of-town landlords but pay property taxes and other fees that go to Worcester County and City Hall.
Road repair, libraries, trash collection, water and sewer service, police and fire protection, lifeguards, schools, the list goes on and on. In Ocean City, not only have fortunes been built on the check books of vacation renters but so have routine public services. Banning weekly renters from a mere 246 or so properties might not be a disaster for the economy, but where would the line be drawn ultimately? Today it might be a handful of communities, but tomorrow, it might be a handful more and a handful after that.
It's fair to worry about the quality of life in Ocean City, whether it involves an exotic dancer on the boardwalk, illegal henna tattoo stands or ill-behaved visitors. But this is an enforcement problem, not a matter of zoning, and officials would be wise not to start barring vacation rentals, lest they toss out all the golden eggs because of a few bad ones.
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