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."