Bitter Debate Delays Historic District Expansion

BERLIN – Berlin’s historic district expansion was put back another month this week after a local developer protested the inclusion of his property in the expanded historic zone.

What was originally a short discussion by the Berlin Planning Commission on the expanded historic district map turned into an, at times, acrimonious conversation after developer Troy Purnell realized his Purnell Crossing property was still in the plan.           

Purnell said he had been assured that his property had been taken out of the proposed historic district expansion.

“I don’t want to be included if there’s going to be an architectural review of any changes,” Purnell told the Berlin Planning Commission when public comments were opened after the agenda items.

Purnell said the Historic District Commission (HDC) told him that his property had been cut from the expansion.

The project has already received site plan approval, which is grand fathered into the historic district expansion. The HDC can only review changes to the site plan.

“If you have approvals, that’s a different story,” said Tim Bourcier, planning consultant to Berlin.

Purnell said the project is a long-term effort. “It’ll take 20 years and there’ll be some changes. I don’t want to be subject to another body on architectural changes,” Purnell said of his 455-unit project.

Planning Commission Chair Pete Cosby, who reopened the discussion after the commission voted to recommend the expansion to the Berlin Mayor and Council, told Purnell he was sympathetic, but that the road frontage of the project is a historic corridor.

“The question is whether in this particular location it’s appropriate,” Cosby said.

The historic district is really meant to be downtown Main Street Berlin, Purnell said.

Joe Hill, a member of the planning commission, said that new homes should meet some architectural design standards.

“Architectural is a problem I’ve got,” Purnell said.

“Architectural is a problem we have,” Cosby said.

Much of the new residential building in Berlin looks plastic and does not blend in with Berlin’s neighborhoods, Cosby feels, and is trashing the town.

People like their new homes, Purnell said, adding, “I take offense.”

“If it looks horrible, it looks horrible,” Cosby said.

Purnell reiterated his request, saying, “Please do not include mine is all I’m asking, respectfully.”

Cosby could do not do that. “The problem is we’ve found this corridor is of historic significance,” Cosby said. “I’m trying to find a compromise here.”

What people see as they travel down a road is important, said Cosby. He suggested that Purnell develop the houses on the road frontage to reflect historic home styles of Berlin.

A screening and landscape plan for that area has been designed and approved, Purnell said.

“Developments around town are benefiting from the fact that the town is what it is and the historic district really needs to try to keep it that way,” said Ed Hammond, a native of Berlin and an advocate for maintaining its historic nature.

However, while a subdivision the size of Purnell Crossing will certainly have an impact on the town, Hammond felt the property is far enough removed from the town center to reduce the effect.

“I don’t see Troy’s property as being really appropriate for the zone,” Hammond said.

The area does not contribute to the town’s historic persona, he felt.

“If you want to keep it historically accurate, you’d probably put cows out there, you’d probably put pigs out there,” Hammond said.

The historic district requirements would be burdensome to the project, Cosby concluded, but at the same time, he asked Purnell to be sensitive to the road.

John Barrett, the new alternate planning commission member sitting in for Dave Rovansek, did not see any issue with pulling Purnell’s property out of the proposed historic district expansion.

“How can it be historic if it’s a field that nobody built on?” Barrett asked.

Hill urged that the first 300 feet on the side of the road be included.

The town may not legally be allowed to split the parcel, Bourcier said, because the historic district is a zoning district, and a parcel may not have split zoning districts.

What the town really needs is enforceable architectural standards, said Berlin resident and developer Ron Cascio.

The commission has discussed architectural standards at length in recent years, instead of trying to use the historic district designation to do that job. 

“We need to get on with the guidelines,” Cascio said.

Hill made a motion to retain the district expansion as drawn, requiring Purnell to go before the historic district commission for any changes to the plan.

“I think the developer and the community benefit,” he said.

No one seconded the motion.

The commission then voted to table the matter and look into exactly what the historic district commission told Purnell.