BERLIN – A dispute over water and sewer service at the Carriage House building prompted a local realtor to declare at Monday night’s Berlin Town Council meeting that Berlin is not business friendly.
A local couple, who asked not to be identified in the media, have spent the last four months attempting to open a deli and carry-out in the building on Pitt Street that has been home to the Worcester County Developmental Center’s Carriage House restaurant and Just Like Mama’s Italian eatery, but the number of EDUs assigned to the building is in dispute, and the decision has dragged out.
“We’re not getting a reputation as a very friendly town to operate a business,” said Cam Bunting, the real estate agent representing building owner Ireland LLC of Reston, Va.
“You’re really kind of maligning the town and it’s not fair,” said Council member Paula Lynch.
“To use the term that Berlin is not business friendly is not accurate,” said Berlin Mayor Tom Cardinale.
“We need business,” said Lynch.
A few days after the meeting, Bunting stood by her comments.
“You’re getting so many mixed signals,” said Bunting. “If you could get the right answer and it not change, I think it would make it a lot easier.”
Bunting said that the regulations are not enforced uniformly throughout Berlin, and that the proposed deli and carry-out has fallen afoul of a new urge to enforce town regulations.
“The standards aren’t the same for everyone in town,” Bunting said. “I don’t think it’s who you are. They decided it was time to enforce what they have on the books. It’s a timing thing.”
Pocomoke native and current New Jersey resident Heidi Butler, who purchased Boomer’s Restaurant and carryout in summer 2006, went before the council on April 14 to complain about the long process of meeting town requirements, the engineering fees charged to her over a new type of grease trap and a wastewater service. Berlin also has yet to issue a certificate of occupancy to the business, which has been open for several months.
Butler declined an interview request this week after the council upheld the $1,800 in engineering fees charged her by the town. They also voted to request the grease trap maintenance contract for the Boomer’s equipment from Butler, which she has not yet submitted.
At the April 14 council meeting, Butler expressed frustration over the costly and involved process of getting the approvals for the renovations, and the need for more EDUs than the five assigned to her growing business, adding that she felt she had done a lot to clean up the property and make it an asset to Berlin.
At least one prospective business owner has been discouraged by the lack of progress.
“There was a point I thought maybe it would be easier in Salisbury or West Ocean City,” said the Berlin resident who wants to use the Carriage House for a deli and carryout. “The rules are a little complex…It’s a very slow process, I feel. In business you can’t do that. You’ve got to get the jump on it. You’ve got to go. I can’t keep waiting for months.”
The lack of EDUs slows commercial as well as residential growth in the town and surrounding region.
“The hobby shop is empty. The hardware store is empty. Sylvan Learning is empty,” said Bunting, pointing out at least five other unused commercial properties.
Bunting said she had two inquiries this week alone for restaurant space and is working with national chains that want to bring in new businesses like drug stores and department stores, but there are no EDUs available.
Just finding out how many EDUs are allocated to a property can be difficult, she said.
The town needs to standardize and streamline the process for new businesses, and perhaps offer a prepared checklist of all the steps to be accomplished and permits to be approved so that every business owner has the same information and follows the same rules, Bunting suggested.
“There needs to be some kind of chain of command,” said Bunting. “More than one person needs to know what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, the struggle over the EDUs for the Carriage House building goes on.
According to Berlin Administrative Director Linda Bambary, the building has been assigned one EDU, but needs two EDUs based on the schematic of the proposed deli. At the moment, the town does not have an additional EDU to assign the eatery.
Bunting protested to the council that a license for a 70-seat restaurant hangs in the building and under state law that number of seats requires seven EDUs.
That license has nothing to do with the amount of sewer and water capacity assigned to the building, according to Bambary. The change from a 70-seat restaurant to a deli makes a difference.
“How can you take that away?” asked Bunting. “I know there are no EDUs. It’s more the principle of the thing.”
“There was never seven EDUs assigned. There’s never been enough flows,” said Cardinale.
The state guidelines would apply to a newly expanded business in Berlin, Bambary said.
Ireland LLC’s lawyer has sent a letter to the town about the matter threatening litigation.
“It seems to me there’s some way to work this out but now we have lawyers involved,” said Lynch.
With a new and expanded wastewater plant and expanded water capacity on the horizon, more capacity will become available in the next few years. The town will release additional EDUs after the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) approves the changes to the town sewer system.
The capacity management plan gives the downtown historic district top priority, Bambary said.
The upgraded and expanded wastewater plant work was set back another 90 days this month after the MDE extended its review period for the necessary change in the Worcester County Water and Sewer Plan, but Berlin is proceeding in the hiring process for an engineering firm. The council will decide on the project engineers some time in May.
According to town attorney Dave Gaskill, he only needs a few days to look over material from Ireland LLC’s lawyer, and the matter could be out on the council’s executive session agenda for May 12.
“We’ll try to fast track this so the gentleman can open his business,” said Lynch.
The prospective deli proprietor, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I just feel I’m sitting on my hands. It’s driving me crazy.”