Berlin Planners OK Zoning Change For Senior Housing Project

BERLIN – The Davis Farm took another step this week in its journey from the never materialized industrial park to senior housing, with the Berlin Planning Commission’s recommendation that the town approve a change in the zoning code to allow the senior project in an industrial zone.

Joe Moore, representing the property owners, went before the planning commission Wednesday night to ask that senior housing be written into the zoning code as a principal permitted use in the M1A industrial zone, arguing that the change would have a very limited effect. The Davis Farm encompasses the only industrial zoning in the town.

A text change approved two years ago already allows professional offices on the property, which the site developers envision as medical offices. The senior housing, from cottages to assisted living to a nursing home, would be the other half of a senior living/medical campus, Moore said.

Atlantic General Hospital has expressed interest in medical offices on the site.

Moore said he is trying to get a beneficial use on the site for the property owners and the town, and that the senior housing would be compatible with the already permitted professional offices.

The Davis Farm, along with the adjacent Taylor Farm, was annexed into Berlin several years ago as industrial land, but the industrial park fell through, and the various owners of the property have been attempting to find a way to use the land since.

“There hasn’t been a use in over a decade and a half on this property. If there was, we would have developed it,” Moore said.

Attempts to have the Davis Farm rezoned to residential or to get both farms de-annexed from the town, have failed.

The planning commission balked at a permanent text change allowing residential use in an industrial zone.

“It’s always bad precedent to take a statute and tailor it to a specific property,” said Planning Commission Chair Pete Cosby.

Moore acknowledged that the property owners’ problems are not the commission’s, but asked them to consider that the property has not been usable for 15 years.

“We’ve got a partner ready to stand up and say, here’s a concept for a senior community,” Moore said.

Cosby said that he was concerned that the property could be sold once the senior housing is built, and the new owner could put in a tire plant or some other industrial use on the unused M1A acreage. The planning commission has seen that kind of change happen before when properties change hands and has become a little gun shy, he said.

A new owner would still have to get site plan approval from the town for anything he wanted to build, Moore said.

“Without a planned industrial park, we can’t put a tire rendering plant there,” he said.

Ed Baker, attorney to the planning commission, pointed out that an industrial park, by town code, must be over 100 acres.

With the senior living project taking up 110 acres, there would be only about 40 acres of industrial land left.

Commission member Newt Chandler suggested allowing the senior housing as a conditional use.

The property developer would then need approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals as well to go ahead with the project.

“Conditional use has another layer of scrutiny,” Cosby said. “It’s really a more intensive level of review that is more articulated and defined.”

Moore said his clients could live with that.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the change to the Berlin Mayor and Council, which have to approve it.