Berlin Slow To Vote On Senior Living Community

BERLIN – A bid to add a senior living residential use to industrial zoning for the Davis farm in Berlin is stalled once again, waiting for town staff input.

Property owner Tom Ruark is attempting to get a text amendment to the Berlin zoning code to allow senior housing and associated medical offices in the M1-A industrial zone.

The current Berlin zoning code specifically prohibits dwellings in the M1-A district, listing under prohibited uses, “any dwelling, trailer, hospital, church, clinic or other institution for human care.”

The Davis Farm property was annexed into Berlin several years ago to provide a site for an industrial park that never got off the ground. The M1-A zoning was created specifically for that industrial park, but with none in sight, owners of the land have been trying to find some other use for it for years.

Worcester County recently rejected Ruark’s attempt to de-annex the properties from the town limits back into the county.

The Berlin Planning Commission voted to support listing senior living facilities as a conditional use in M1-A, not a permitted use, meaning the Berlin Board of Zoning Appeals would have to approve any plan for the site before the planning commission ever took a look at it.

“It’s not your problem, but I have been here on this property for five years with this man and there’s nothing on that property but cut-over corn fields,” said attorney Joe Moore, representing Ruark.

If senior living facilities become a conditional use in the M1-A district, the town has another level of review, Moore said. Every additional building phase would need to go through the Board of Zoning Appeals.

“It would give the owner of the property the opportunity to move forward and then seek approval,” Moore said.

The town council decided to wait on staff recommendations on the requested change.

“I think we throw it back to Tim [Bourcier],” said Councilwoman Ellen Lang, referring to the planning consultant handling some of the duties of the planning and zoning director. That position has been empty since the summer, with a new director to be hired this winter.

“If we need to have staff input, that’s fine,” Moore said.

The town council needs to find a use for that property that makes sense for the community, Council Vice President Gee Williams said.

“It’s our responsibility to find some practical, beneficial use for that property,” said Williams.

Others appeared more skeptical.

“We’re dealing with one project and we’re going to change the ordinance, change the law forever,” Cardinale said.

With the land already annexed into Berlin, the town has no leverage to make requests of the developer under this scenario, said Lang. “We have no bargaining chips,” she said.

If, for example, the town wants another public safety facility in that area, there is an opportunity to ask for that concession during the approval of any project on Taylor farm, said Williams.

“My only concern is we’re talking about a legislative change for M1-A. There is no other M1-A in Berlin,” town Administrative Director Linda Bambary said.

There is little likelihood that the town council will ever designate more M1-A property.

“This is it. If we ever created another one I’d assume somebody would have to hold guns to our heads,” Williams said. “From a practical standpoint, it only affects this property.”

Planning Commission Joe Hill said approving the text amendment will impact the property forever.

“It’s almost asking for a rezoning,” said Hill. “Once you allow this use, it diminishes the property as an M-1 use.”

The owner had tried to get all kinds of uses on that site, Moore said.

“We got the real honest to God potential of creating an all-encompassing senior living community in this town. You don’t have anything like that,” he said.

“This is the best idea you’ve come up with,” Councilwoman Paula Lynch said.

Senior living units meet the town’s draft comprehensive plan, Moore said, which calls for residences and services targeted to seniors.

On the advice of Bourcier, Ruark has agreed to model the regulations of the senior living facility closer to Maryland regulations, requiring home owners to be 55 years of age or older, and requiring other residents of those dwellings to be at least 18 years old. The age restrictions would run with the land, ensuring the age limits even when the properties change hands.

“As you know, seniors require much less in the way of services,” Moore said. “The services they need are provided within the community and not by the town.”

There is no increased burden on the schools, for example, the attorney said.

 “We have to be realistic. This is a piece of property that’s been a burr in our butt and in the butt of previous councils for years,” Williams said.

The town council will next consider the request in January. The Dec. 26 town council meeting has been cancelled.

“All I want for Christmas is a text amendment,” Moore said.