Town Tables Land Rezoning For Senior Living

BERLIN – There will be no ‘back-door’ rezoning for the Davis Farm property in Berlin, the Berlin Mayor and Council decided this week, instead choosing to wait on further options that will allow the industrially-zoned site to be used residentially, as the developer intends.

The council tabled developer Tom Ruark’s request for a text amendment allowing senior living facilities as a conditional use in the M-1A industrial district at Monday night’s meeting.

The technology park intended for the Davis Farm, the only M-1A zoned land in Berlin, fell through years ago, but the unique zoning remains.

Last year, the council denied a rezoning request by the property owner, and the County Commissioners refused to countenance an unprecedented de-annexation of the property back into the county.

Ruark plans to build what he calls an integrated senior living facility on the Davis Farm, including over-55 housing, assisted living units, and health care offices, but under the M-1A zoning, he cannot, without a text amendment adding the use as either permitted or conditional.

Townspeople vocally objected to the text amendment during the public hearing Monday night.

“We had a referendum in town that the citizens of the town voted to put an industrial park on the property. They wanted jobs and they wanted an industrial park because it fit that location,” said Marge Coyman. “This doesn’t sound anything like what the community voted on.”

That plan did not work out, said Joe Moore, attorney for Ruark.

“There’s not one job on that property [now] except a farmer,” he said, but the senior living facility would employ 110 people, at a payroll of $5 million. The facility would pay $500,000 to $750,000 in taxes to the town every year, Moore said. “It’s now and it’s not in the future,” he said.

Berlin resident Sandy Coyman, a professional planner and director of the Worcester County comprehensive planning department, objected to the way the text amendment was written.

“This ordinance would provide for unlimited residential density,” Coyman said. “This ordinance as proposed would essentially be a blank check.”

The land could be developed into single-family homes, without adding one job, under the amendment as it is written, he said, and there is no guarantee that what Ruark proposes to build will ever come to be.

The town does not need to be rushed into a decision.

“This development would also break all the rules of good planning,” said developer and Berlin resident Ron Cascio. “Explain to me why we should throw good planning to the wind because a speculative developer form Wicomico County is in a hurry? … It’s hard to believe we could ever consider this.”

Reisdent Marcy Rovansek said, “I just don’t feel like we should be in a rush if it’s not costing the taxpayer right now.”

The text amendment also contradicts the current Berlin Comprehensive Plan, which reserves the M-1A land for industry, Sandy Coyman added.

“We have an opportunity right now to follow through with our Comprehensive Plan and make long term decisions,” said Berlin resident Kate Patton. “To plan for the long term may require another few months or few years to make our decision.”

None of the speakers disagreed with the need for senior housing facilities in Berlin.

“I just don’t think this is the way to get there,” said Sandy Coyman.

Town elected officials said there is little to no demand for new industrial land in Berlin. In his four years in office, Mayor Tom Cardinale said he has not had a single letter or inquiry on industrial sites in the town.

Berlin has seen almost no industrial development in 50 years, said Council Vice President Gee Williams.

“The tech park in this town is a pipe dream. It hasn’t happened. It isn’t going to happen,” said Williams.

The annexation agreement for the property is a problem for Berlin.

“We really have a very flawed annexation agreement. I think we’ve got a lemon here and we’re trying hard to make lemonade out of it. I think we’ve got a mess on our hands. We’ve had it for eight years,” said Councilwoman Paula Lynch.

“I don’t want to substitute a flawed annexation agreement with a flawed text amendment,” said Williams. “This shortcut is not the way to go. It’s the wrong way to try and possibly do the right thing.”

The council also said it was concerned that that text amendment would not limit building to the senior living facility.

“In the end, I’m not sure we have enough teeth in to get a senior center,” said Councilman Elroy Brittingham.

 “It’s a dilemma. It clearly is a back-door approach. It clearly is de facto changing zoning. I don’t know. I absolutely don’t know,” said Lynch.

“I don’t know, just like Paula,” said Brittingham. “I don’t want to be in a hurry to do anything and do it wrong.”

“I don’t look at it as a method of back-door change,” council member Dean Burrell said. “I would vote in favor tonight.”

The council voted to table the new text amendment and consider a new version at the March 24 town council meeting.

Ruark would have been prohibited from requesting a new text amendment for a year if the council had voted against the proposed change.