A vote this week by Ocean City residents to prohibit virtually any building higher than five stories will give the Maryland resort height restrictions stronger than almost any other large boardwalk resort on the Atlantic coast.
While some city officials said it was too late to change the image or atmosphere of the crowded resort town, where some buildings are already 28 stories high, opponents of high-rises called it the dawning of a new age.
Mayor Roland (Fish) Powell, who opposed the restrictions along with the rest of the City Council, called it a major statement by the voters on the future of the city, which has 6,000 year-round residents and about 250,000 visitors during summer weekends.
"The people of Ocean City have expressed their wishes, desires and thoughts," he said. "They don't want high-rises."
One of the principal reasons for limiting height is to prevent wide shadows along the beaches during the afternoon.
The policies in other major Atlantic resorts vary widely, but many with boardwalks and a boardwalk atmosphere such as Ocean City's allow buildings that are considerably higher.
Hotels and condominiums loom over the sands in Miami Beach, many exceeding 20 stories. Planning officials there said there is no limit to the height of buildings in the city's commercial areas, although certain setbacks and open-space areas are required.
Virginia Beach limits beachfront buildings to 125 feet in height, or about 12 stories. There are no height restrictions in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where many buildings are about 24 stories high. Planners there said they are drafting restrictions that would limit buildings to 120 feet, or about 12 stories, largely because beachgoers complain they can't get the afternoon sun.
In Atlantic City, buildings along the beachfront cannot be higher than 385 feet, about 38 stories. In an effort to keep the afternoon sun on the beaches, the high-rises must be angled at 30 degrees from the level of the boardwalk, giving the city's high-rise casinos their distinctive sloping architecture.
Although most buildings in downtown Ocean City are still between three and five stories, developers have built many high-rise hotels and condominiums along the beach at the northern end of the city, which occupies a 9.2-mile stretch of a barrier island.
City laws allowed builders to build to unlimited heights as long as their high-rises did not cast shadows that were "detrimental" to nearby property. For example, a building could be approved if its shadow fell on a nearby parking lot rather than on a swimming pool.
That ended two years ago, after a Circuit Court judge ruled that the city's zoning laws had not been properly applied, and that no building taller than five stories was allowed unless its shadow fell entirely within its own property.
The City Council then unanimously passed a zoning ordinance in June that clarified the shadow issue and in effect reinstated the old law allowing high-rises that were not "detrimental" to nearby propery. Citizens opposed to the law immediately launched a petition drive, which led to Tuesday's vote.
George Hurley, an Ocean City council member who opposed the petition drive, said Ocean City is already a developed commercial resort and that high-rise restrictions cannot change that.
"I don't think Baltimoreans and Washingtonians will stop coming," he said. "You can pass all the anti-high-rise bills you want. But if folks can't afford the Bahamas or the Caribbean, they come to the nearest ocean resort. And one of them is Ocean City."