By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge commissioners are poised to take a second look at a charter amendment referendum proposal that would require a four-vote supermajority to change the town’s density or height requirements for new construction projects.
The measure came before the commission in November and was rejected with a 3-2 vote.
Supporters say the change is needed to rein in the influence of aggressive developers.
Opponents believe the supermajority requirement would allow a two-commissioner minority to obstruct the will of the majority, shifting the balance of power the wrong way.
During the Sept. 9 town meeting, Vice Mayor Don MaGruder said he wanted to bring the issue up for discussion again at the commission’s Oct. 7 meeting, which would enable the proposal to go to the voters in the next municipal election.
MaGruder said he’s heard “over and over again” from residents who worry that if the town converts from septic tanks to a municipal sewer system, it could open the door to unbridled development and redevelopment. The issue is under preliminary study.
“I think we need to bring this back for a first reading in October,” he said. “Then in November we can have a second reading, then we can put it as a referendum in March.”
What’s different this time around is the makeup of the commission.
In November, then-Mayor Jim Bonfiglio, Commissioner Steve Coz and Commissioner Phil Besler joined to vote down the proposal. MaGruder and Commissioner Kristine de Haseth were on the losing side.
Bonfiglio has since left the commission, and Commissioner Susan Hurlburt now holds his seat. Whether the charter amendment moves forward appears to come down to which side Hurlburt takes.
During her campaign last spring, Hurlburt seemed to oppose the amendment. The commission has to be “ahead of the game,” she said, “and you don’t need a supermajority to do that.”
Hurlburt, in an email to The Coastal Star after the Sept. 9 meeting, said she is still studying the matter: “I have not made up my mind … gathering info/input and expect to hear quite a bit more about the question before and during the next Commission meeting.”
Besler said he believes the supermajority issue should be kicked back to the town’s charter review committee, which originally recommended the idea last year. He said he is concerned about unintended consequences.
“Why are you bringing this up?” Besler asked. “Because you’re worried about sewers or because you want a second bite of the apple with a new commissioner?”
He said a conversion from septic to sewer would take years, so the commission has ample time to examine the supermajority proposal fully.
“Basically, I agree with everything you want to accomplish,” he said. “But I’m afraid that you’re not going to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
Coz was absent for the September meeting. De Haseth said she’s “in full support” of bringing the proposal back and then letting voters decide.
In other business: With a 3-1 vote, commissioners approved setting the tentative millage cap for the 2019-2020 budget at $5.35 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
De Haseth voted no, arguing the commission should set the rate slightly higher and take less from reserves to narrow the budget deficit.
Town Manager Tracey Stevens said it might take as much as $296,367 from reserves to balance the budget. The town has a long list of stormwater and drainage repairs to make, and it had to increase the salaries of employees after a survey showed Ocean Ridge had fallen behind pay scales in neighboring communities.
The deficit shrank by $180,000 when the town’s Police Department won the contract to provide law enforcement services to Briny Breezes.