For decades, Mallard Island has been an oasis of tranquillity in this noisy, congested and boozy Maryland beach town, a slice of suburbia for well-connected townies who, in many cases, make their living off the tourist-saturated boardwalk a few blocks away.
Then a woman from Gaithersburg bought 1501 Teal Dr.
Lisa Gorman spent $700,000 to purchase and renovate the six-bedroom home, planning to rent it to large groups of vacationers for as much as $5,500 per week.
Within hours of her first tenants’ arrival in May, neighbors called police, Gorman said. The renters were riding scooters in the street, which is just not allowed on Mallard Island.
All summer, the calls kept coming, to every local official imaginable. Groups of up to 17 renters — and sometimes more, the neighbors allege — brought too many cars, generated too much trash and made too much noise in the backyard pool. Once, neighbors said, a “drunk bus” made a late-night drop-off.
“You can imagine,” said Mary Knight, a City Council member who lives on Mallard Island. “We want a livable community for our full-time residents.”
Geoffrey and Michelle Robbins, Gorman’s next-door neighbors, grew fed up and investigated ways to ban weekly rentals on Mallard Island. But that would likely require changing the rules for all of Ocean City’s roughly 3,500 single-family houses, fewer than 300 of which are licensed as rentals.
Dozens of flustered homeowners and business people showed up at a public hearing Aug. 19 to decry the possibility, saying a ban could be a serious financial blow.
“Tourism — it’s our industry,” real estate agent Jerry Milko said. “We have to protect it.”
The Robbinses did not respond to interview requests. Their attorney, Joseph E. Moore, said the couple is pushing for a new subset of zoning rules that would apply just to Mallard Island and, possibly, other upscale neighborhoods. “That would take it out of the emotional situation we saw” at the hearing, Moore said.
The planning and zoning commission is expected to make a recommendation to the City Council in early September.
Most of the original homes on Mallard Island were built in the 1960s and 1970s, on a landfill created by dredging the nearby bay. The name is a misnomer; it is actually a peninsula jutting out from 15th Street. There’s just one street, Teal Drive, and 53 homes, ranging from waterfront mansions to modest ranchers.
Residents include state Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Somerset); members of the Phillips family, of seafood restaurant fame; the chief executive of Sunsations, the ubiquitous beachfront stores; owners of several hotels and rental properties; and the proprietors of restaurants and bars including Layton’s Family Restaurant, Dough Roller and Bull on the Beach.
One Realtor has described Mallard Island as the “most established upscale ‘single-family’ neighborhood” in Ocean City. Gorman, and other critics of the proposed rental ban, say it is ridiculous for residents of a town that thrives on visitors to bristle when those visitors want to stay on their street.
“They have those big homes because of tourism,” Gorman said. “They want tourism — they just don’t want it in their back yard.”
Gorman’s house previously belonged to Ed Burke, a boardwalk carny-turned-businessman who died in 2009 and was perhaps best known as owner of the Brass Balls Saloon and co-founder of Big Pecker’s Bar and Grille. (Gorman, 49, is also in the restaurant business. She owns Hershey’s Restaurant and Bar near Gaithersburg, a family-style diner known for its fried chicken.)
Not all Teal Drive residents have joined the anti-rental fight. But many are reluctant to challenge it out of respect for “Doc Robbins,” a retired dentist who served more than 25 years on the planning and zoning commission.
“He was my dentist for 40 years,” said Jerry Priestley, 53, who owns a window-installation company and recently built a home on Mallard Island. A onetime renter himself, Priestley said he is reluctant to support a ban. But he sympathizes with the doctor: “If I lived next door to that, I would have a hard time, too.”
Gorman said she rents the vacation home to pay the mortgage and plans to move there when she retires. She hired a rental company to handle the transactions and enforce current restrictions, including the ban on more than four unrelated people renting the house together.
Central Reservations, the company that lists Gorman’s home, makes no mention on its Web site of the prohibition on renting to more than four unrelated individuals. But Marlene Bradford, the company’s managing partner, said that potential renters are told that only families or small groups of friends — such as four married couples — are allowed to stay in the house.
“We ask them point-blank: ‘Who are you? Who will be staying there?’ ” Bradford said. “If they get here, and they’re not a family, they will be asked to leave, and they will forfeit their money. That gets their attention.”
She said that one week, only five people stayed at the house but that most weeks it is around 12.
Ocean City receives about 10 complaints a year related to rental homes, said zoning administrator R. Blaine Smith, perhaps because the vast majority of visitors stay in one of the town’s 9,500 hotel rooms or 25,000 condo units.
“It’s not a big, big problem,” Smith said. “But if it’s in your neighborhood, it’s a big problem.”
Mallard Island originally forbade members from renting out their homes, Smith said, but that provision expired years ago. The neighborhood could organize a homeowners association that could set its own rules, but all owners — including Gorman — would have to agree.
“This lady who owns this house, she’s not going to give away her rights,” Smith said.
Even if the neighbors fail to change Mallard Island’s zoning, Gorman said she worries they will still find a way to force her out, perhaps by revoking her rental license or harassing her renters. Some renters already are reporting bad experiences.
“I have never felt watched, harassed or unwanted at a property as I did here,” a woman from Philadelphia said in an e-mail to the rental agent in early August.
Gorman said she is willing to make changes next summer, such as raising the rent, renting for fewer weeks or lowering the number of people allowed. But she fears such changes might not be enough to end the conflict and confesses that the acrimony of this summer “just makes me want to be unneighborly.”
Gorman said she tried to hire an Ocean City lawyer to advocate for her in the zoning process, but one after another turned her down, citing conflicts of interest. Several suggested that she sell the house, even at the risk of a financial loss.
“I’m told that Ocean City is a very small town, a ‘good old boys’ town,” Gorman said. “If I could sell the house, I would sell that house. If someone would offer me money, I would sell tomorrow.”