Mixed-Use Project Proposed For Large Site Adjacent To Schools

BERLIN — Years after an initial plan to develop Seahawk Road was abandoned, a new developer briefed the Worcester County Board of Education this week about a vision for the area.

Rinnier Development Company (RDC) hopes to add both retail and residential facilities on Seahawk Road, directly adjacent to Stephen Decatur High and Middle Schools.

Representing RDC, attorney Mark Cropper led his presentation by drawing a distinct line between what other developers had considered adding to Seahawk Road in the 2000s and what RDC looks to do.

“I think one of the principle differences between the earlier proposal for this property and what’s being proposed now is that none of the earlier proposals were inclusive of a residential component. A large portion of this is residential in nature,” Cropper said.

RDC Vice President Blair Rinnier told the board that his company has already purchased the 120 acres across from the two schools and is considering adding another nearby parcel. The plan RDC has is to find a few retailers who are willing to enter into a contract with them to add facilities on Seahawk Road. That would only be for the space closest to Route 50 and Seahawk Road, however, with the majority of the parcel RDC owns slated to be devoted to residential apartment units.

Once fully realized, which Rinnier stressed could take 10 to 15 years, the RDC-owned property on Seahawk Road could have around 375,000 square feet of commercial space as well as up to 900 apartment units. While that level of development would represent a major shift from what exists in the area today, Rinnier told the school board that everything would be done in phases and that RDC has put careful thought in how to manage the growth.

The developer would be installing a service road, Cropper added, which would serve to allow easy ingress and egress from the nearby schools.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for students, parents, anybody accessing the school to utilize the service road, which is directly across from the parking lot,” he said.

A service road would be a major improvement, according to Cropper, as anyone leaving or entering either school now has to make use of Seahawk Road, a situation that can result in heavy traffic during the school year at certain points of the day.

“Really, what you’re doing in my opinion, it’s a relief valve that the schools don’t have right now,” said Cropper. “Right now, you are very limited on how your busses, your students, and your parents can exit the school.”

Additionally, because new residential and commercial development will always increase traffic in an area, Cropper said that RDC will design their development in a way that will make it impossible for people to pile onto Flower Street to use it as a shortcut.

“You cannot exit the property and turn left. Nor can you travel in a northerly direction on Seahawk and turn right,” he said.

Traffic from the potential retail project shouldn’t mix with the school during the school year, either, noted Rinnier. The times when schools are busiest, early morning and mid-afternoon, aren’t typical rush hours. Any interference can be addressed as the development grows in increments, he promised.

“There are some complementing traffic patterns there. This will be done in phases so anything that we find that is a concern, we can all go back to that conversation again and talk about how to best solve it,” said Rinnier.

The Board of Education listened to the briefing quietly, contributing only a few comments. Board member Bob Hulburd admitted that “there’s potential” to the Seahawk Road site for development but noted that there doesn’t seem to be any plans for the installation of traffic control devices and that students often cross Seahawk Road.

Assistant Superintendent for Administration Lou Taylor said that the addition of any service road would definitely be a positive.

Board member Sara Thompson asked about the content of the retail that might be put on Seahawk Road, telling Cropper and Rinnier that she would not be in favor of seeing things like tattoo parlors installed.

Rinnier furthered that, because they hope to develop residential apartments in the area as well as the fact that anything built will be across from two schools, RDC will be careful about the retail that it seeks into any agreement. Getting retailers to sign on will be the next step and could be a tough process.

“Selling the Eastern Shore of Maryland is still a challenge,” said Rinnier. “[Retailers] are from Baltimore, they’re from Washington; they don’t know the demographics here. They look at our community, particularly here, as seasonal.”

Still, he’s optimistic about finding one or two big retailers to come on board. Once a contract is in place, commercial development could be ready about 18 months later. Development on apartments could begin in about 12 to 18 months, with apartments probably available for rent somewhere in the 18- to 30-month range.

The timetable is still loose, said Rinnier, and there are many steps left to go through like planning, zoning and potentially annexation into the town of Berlin. The development would be annexed into Berlin, Cropper told the board, so that the town’s utilities could be used. One of the major problems several years ago with earlier ideas for development, he said, was that Berlin “wasn’t ready” to handle the annexation of major retail or residential growth on Seahawk Road to that scale.

Since then, the town has expanded its utilities, added a new stormwater utility and in general grown to the point where Cropper is confident an annexation would go well.

“The timing, it was just premature back then … all these endeavors that were in process have come to fruition,” he said.

Board of Education Vice President John Cook thanked Cropper and Rinnier for briefing the board on what RDC would like to do. He didn’t offer a positive or negative opinion on the presentation but did remind them that the board’s only concern is for the safety and well-being of the more than 2,000 students who attend the two schools on Seahawk Road.

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