Potential Environmental Park Hinges On Finances

BERLIN – The first step to a new environmental park in Berlin is an appraisal of the property, an action approved by the Berlin Mayor and Council Monday night.

About 7.85 acres of land off North Main St. and Harrison Avenue, with a house included, have been proposed as the site of a new environmental park, the first new town park in over 30 years.

An environmental park would differ from the recreational parks in town by offering low-impact activities and resources like walking paths, birding opportunities and environmental demonstration projects, not the basketball courts and playgrounds expected in municipal parks.

Landowner Mike Nally once planned to build houses on the site, but a change of direction led him to consider alternate uses for the land last year.

“We’d like to do something if possible with a public-private partnership which would benefit the town,” said Nally at the work session.

Nally, who lives in Ocean View, Del., said he bought the property planning to move to Berlin, but that has not come about. He also had earlier plans to build 27 houses on the several-acre site, around the historic home. Now, Nally would like to see the site sold to benefit the town.

“We’re really torn over the property,” Nally said. “I think it would be a great addition in many different ways for many different players.”

The potential park met with strong support.

“This would be a wonderful jewel in the crown for Berlin,” said Patricia Duffendach, chair of the Berlin Parks Commission.

“No disrespect to developers, I’d rather see these eight acres retained as it is than see another 24 houses sticking in there,” said Council member Lisa Hall.

Before the town can start enjoying its new feature, money must be found to buy the land.

“He’s not in a position to just give us the land,” said Berlin Mayor Gee Williams. “That’s not what we’re asking for and that’s not what he’s offering.”

Securing the land could be a challenge financially. Williams said the old model, where the town absorbed all costs for this kind of purchase, was no longer a valid approach.

“That’s not going to get it done. If it was that easy, it would have been done years ago,” Williams said.

The land purchase will only be made through financial partnerships with other entities.

“The town of Berlin has no intention of just putting up the money ourselves,” said Williams.

The town anticipates providing some funding, perhaps at the deposit level, Williams said Monday night. However, the remainder of the cost would have to come from Program Open Space funds, other state or federal grants or private sources.

The Lower Shore Land Trust, Director Kate Patton said, does not work directly with this kind of land, but could assist the landowner in pursuing tax credits and conservation easements or Program Open Space funds.

Maryland Coastal Bays Program Director Dave Wilson offered his organization’s help to leverage state and federal funds.

Duffendach spoke of approaching the Audobon Society or Maryland Ornithological Society for grants, as well as corporate donors, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, which have assisted the town in the past, albeit on a small scale.

Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward felt that state funds attached to the preservation of habitat for forest interior dwelling species was a possible source of money.

Selling a conservation easement on the property is also possible. The property is platted for 27 residential units. A conservation easement would extinguish that plan.

Williams encouraged citizens to brainstorm potential funding sources.

Berlin, Williams said, would take the role of a facilitator between stakeholders in moving forward toward a new park.

One financial concern that came up Thursday was future maintenance costs. Instead of the town paying those bills, Williams suggested creating a primarily privately funded endowment fund for the park, similar to a fund set up in Salisbury to take care of a park bandstand.

Purchasing the property would require a substantial investment. Nally paid $625,000 for the two parcels in 2003 and 2004.

As long as the approach is mutually beneficial, Nally said he is open to dividing the property or selling less than the whole site.

Williams vowed that the process would be as transparent as legally possible.

Despite the support for the move, Berlin will not pursue the environmental park at all costs, the town council agreed, putting a one-year time limit on pursuit of the new park.

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