Ocean City lawmakers want to calm chaos of unsanctioned car enthusiast event

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The Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn runs a pricey $36,000. (WTOP/Mike Parris)

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) showed a three-minute video compilation to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday of an Ocean City unrecognizable: Drivers spinning their wheels, producing thick white smoke on Coastal Highway, cars drifting in intersections and pedestrians walking up to vehicles in the middle of traffic and hanging off of the median.

This is not the government-approved, semi-annual Cruisin’ Ocean City weekend event where jalopies and muscle cars sail the streets.

This is the unofficial, unsanctioned H2oi weekend: A “pop-up,” social-media-generated modified car weekend — not associated with the official H2oi Volkswagen and Audi event held in Atlantic City, N.J.

“When this pop-up event shows up in town, you see people enter our community driving cars that have taped letters on their car that say, ‘F the Ocean City Police Department,’” Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan told the Senate committee. “I think it lets you know right up front what we’re in for — the total disregard to law enforcement that we are facing.”

Despite the official H2oi event’s move off of the shore, these cars have been coming to Worcester County for years, bringing along what locals describe as chaos.

“Our family is held hostage when these motorists come into town,” said Ocean City Communications Director Jessica Waters, adding that going to the grocery store or even walking down the street feels like a dangerous situation.

“I have to get my children off the bus when this behavior is taking place,” she emotionally told the committee. “They’re scared for their safety; I’m scared for my safety.”

Under current statute, all law enforcement can do is dole out fines that max out at $500, which Meehan says the recipients in some cases pin to their jackets like “badges of courage.”

Meehan said that there were more police officers deployed in Ocean City on Saturday night of that September 2019 weekend depicted in the compilation video “than anywhere else in the state of Maryland.”

“The best we could do is write a citation in front of a good number of bystanders and watch them just jeer and just … egg on this activity,” said Ocean City Police Chief Ross C. Buzzuro.

Buzzuro told the committee that after a combined effort on behalf of the Ocean City Police Department, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Maryland State Police, last September’s unsanctioned weekend racked up over 1,000 car stops, more than 1,600 citations and 100-plus arrests.

“This is not only an issue for the public in general, but for law enforcement,” he said. “As we’re more vigilant, the public is becoming more … brazen, aggressive and reckless in their behavior.”

Carozza has introduced legislation this session that would take police measures a step further.

Senate Bill 878 would allow law enforcement to dispense misdemeanor arrests during all of these motor vehicle weekend events — sanctioned or unsanctioned — making “exhibition driving,” like the tire-spinning burnouts, drag racing and engine revving seen in Carroza’s compilation video, subject to higher fines or even jail time if committed in special event zones.

Carozza said that she has filed this legislation as an emergency bill because the first of the three motorist events this year is set for May.

The House version, sponsored by Del. Wayne A. Hartman (R-Lower Shore), will be heard in the Environment and Transportation Committee next week.

Legislative action has been previously sought to alleviate some of the effects of all three of the annual gatherings.

In 2018, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) signed a bill that allows the State Highway Administration and local municipalities to designate “Special Events Zones” in Worcester County. That classification allows for the reduction of speed limits and increase of fines for traffic violations during car-specific events happening around local highways that are anticipated to draw 1,000 attendees or more — regardless of whether or not they’ve been permitted by the government.

When areas are designated to be special event zones, LED traffic signs bearing that classification are planted along the highway.

That legislation was also introduced as an emergency bill.

Local officials say that the 2018 law has helped, but that it isn’t enough.

Carozza told committee members that during last year’s unsanctioned event, two pedestrians were struck by a car whose driver lost control while trying to perform a burnout in the street. One of those pedestrians was a minor.

Waters said that she is sickened by the hundreds of messages she receives from aggrieved residents and visitors about the behavior of the event’s attendees.

Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Director Melanie Purcell said that the revenue the town sees as a result of the thousands of visitors the event brings is not justification for the mayhem that ensues.

“I will say our businesses do see an economic impact from this event. They do see commerce, they do get revenue,” Purcell said. “However, they are willing to sacrifice that to see something done. This is simply not worth the business that they see coming through their doors.”

Ocean City resident Bob Rothermel produces the two sanctioned motorist events.

He said that his Cruisin’ weekend hot rod events that have run for almost 30 years attempt to exude “Happy Days” or “American Graffiti” vibes, but have been “hijacked” in the last few years by what he dubbed the “‘Fast & Furious’ crowd.”

“We don’t run events that look like this,” he told the committee. “We are aghast that something like this happens in our community.”

Rothermel said that he doesn’t want the sanctioned Cruisin’ weekend events — which he called “the largest privately-owned car show east of the Mississippi” — to be exempt from the proposed legislation out of fear that the raucous crowd will start popping up there, too.

Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) questioned why lawmakers shouldn’t push to make exhibition driving in Worcester County a year-round offense rather than just during the sanctioned and unsanctioned vehicular events.

Rothermel said that he’d “like to see it 365 days a year.”

Carozza reinforced the legislation’s urgency.

“All I know is that right now … we need it for Worcester County, and it is an emergency bill because these events are coming up in May,” she said.

Rothermel’s sanctioned Cruisin’ Ocean City spring event is set for May 14-17, and the Endless Summer Cruisin’ weekend for Oct. 8-11.

According to Facebook, this year’s unsanctioned car event in Ocean City will be held Sept. 24-27 — the same weekend as the town’s annual Winefest On The Beach.

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