Planners Debate Text Amendment for Old Tech Park Property

BERLIN – The Berlin Planning Commission gave the nod to a new, detailed text amendment allowing a senior living facility on the industrially-zoned Davis Farm property this week, clearing the way for the Berlin Town Council to consider the new ordinance later in March.

Property owner Tom Ruark and attorney Joe Moore enlisted several critics of the original text amendment in a workshop to write a new, more comprehensive change to allow the property to be developed as a senior and assisted living complex.

The last text amendment Moore offered did not have enough detail on the definition of a senior living facility, and the Berlin Town Council voted in February to table the issue until the March 24 meeting. The revised text amendment is seven pages long.

The Davis Farm and Taylor Farm properties were annexed into Berlin and zoned M-1A several years ago to be the site of a technology park. Since that venture fell through, the properties have been searching for a use.

Berlin annexed the roughly 370-acre tract just north of the town along Routes 50 and 113 in 2000 for the purpose of developing a light industrial park with an emphasis on technology. The tech park was to be funded by the One Maryland program, a state initiative to fund economic development projects in areas with historically high unemployment rates, but the project fell through when the state could not negotiate a purchase price for the lynchpin properties.

At one point, there was a proposal on the table to develop a 1,200-home residential golf course complete with lakefront boardwalks, retail stores, convenience stores and even a town center with a main street, but that project never came to fruition.

After several failed enterprises proposed the combined Davis and Taylor farms, the vast tract has sat empty for a long time. Years later, Ruark is attempting to develop an assisted living community on the site, but the plan keeps running into roadblocks.

An attempt last year to de-annex the land back into Worcester County, which would have taken the land back to agricultural zoning, was denied by the county commissioners.

Ruark and Moore also have attempted to get the property rezoned by the town of Berlin, but the Berlin Town Council denied that request. Debate at Wednesday’s planning commission meeting centered on the minimum percentage of service-enriched units in the project. The text amendment proposes a lower limit of 30 percent, about 150, units that must receive some kind of assistance, from meals to nursing care.

“My concept of what we’re going to build there was some dependent living and some independent living,” said planning commission member Pete Cosby, and he feels the project needs more dependent living.

With only 30 percent of the units assisted, 70 percent of the housing would be independent living.

“I think that’s an awfully low standard for assisted living,” Cosby said.

Cosby fears that the project would become just another retirement community, like Ocean Pines, which is not what the town wants.

“This is not to provide a housing development for old people. This is to provide assisted living,” said Cosby. “It’s to provide a need.”

A minimum of 30 percent service-enriched units does not meet that need, he felt.

However, Ruark countered his plan as proposed does show enough for the property. “Our plan shows well in excess of 30,” said Ruark.

He stated the percentage is the consensus of the group that came together on the workshops for the expanded amendment.

“I’d hate to back ourselves into the corner,” said Ruark, “I’d hate to commit to something so specific we would have a problem with the project.”

Project planners anticipate that roughly two-thirds of the units will receive some sort of services.

Residents in independent living units can receive services in their homes under this model as they come to need them.

Professional planner Sandy Coyman, one of the concerned citizens who worked on the expanded text amendment, said that the 30 percent also struck him as low, but he realized that the percentage provided a critical mass for the project.

People who will need services in the future will buy in at the beginning, Coyman said. He expects the units wanting services when the facility opens to be closer to 60 percent than 30 percent.

“If you put them into a corner he’s going to have a very hard time making it happen,” Coyman said.

Plans call for the 94-unit assisted living building, where residents would receive full services, to be built first.