Berlin Approves Mechanism Allowing Senior Living Project

BERLIN – The way is now open for the Davis-Taylor Farm property, once meant for a technology park, to become the site of a senior living residential development.

The Berlin Mayor and Council approved the text amendment for the zoning code changes Monday night.

An eight-page text amendment now covers senior living facilities in the M-1A industrial zone, allowing the residential development as a conditional use.

Developers wishing to pursue a conditional use must get the approval of the Berlin Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to proceed to the Berlin Planning Commission for site plan approval, one more step than permitted uses must undertake.

“This is a text change. It’s not an application for the approval of a planned senior living facility. That requires two additional steps,” said Joe Moore, attorney for Davis-Taylor Farm landowners Tom Ruark and Monogram Builders.

Moore emphasized employment and tax benefits to the town during his public hearing testimony Monday night, reiterating a 110-person employment figure and tax revenues up to $750,000.

The developer has spent the past 18 months looking for a way to use the property, which was annexed into town in 2000 and zoned light industrial to host a technology park, which failed to materialize.

Several efforts have been made to convert the property to residential use, but none found a way to allow residential development until now.

An attempt in August 2005 to rezone the industrial-zoned Davis Farm land for residential housing failed.

In winter 2007, Ruark and Moore asked Berlin to de-annex the property back to Worcester County, taking it out of the town limits, but the Worcester County Commissioners said an emphatic no.          The property owner then asked the town, in April 2007, to create a planned unit development (PUD) ordinance for the site allowing workforce housing, senior living, and medical offices. But in October, the town council enacted a six-month moratorium on new PUDs. The PUD code is ambiguous and needs to be rewritten, they concluded.

In November, Moore requested approval of a zoning code text amendment allowing a senior living facility in the light industrial zone. Instead of senior living as a permitted use, the Berlin Planning Commission suggested allowing that kind of facility as a conditional use.

After a few months of revisions, the text amendment went before the town council this week and was approved.

“What we’re asking you all for is simple: the mechanism,” Moore said.

If the BZA denied approval to the project, Councilman Dean Burrell wondered, would the applicant have the standing to sue the town?

While anyone can threaten a lawsuit, town attorney Dave Gaskill said the applicant would have no standing to do so in this case.

A single citizen took advantage of the public hearing.

“The residents of Berlin voted to annex this property based on the idea of a tech park being there,” Marge Coyman said.

While Mayor Tom Cardinale has said in past meetings that there has been no written or verbal interest in industrial land in the town since he took office nearly four years ago, Coyman wondered if the town had made any efforts to attract industrial business to use the annexed Davis and Taylor Farms.

“It sure sounds to me like there’s going to be a whole lot of single family homes with people 55 and older living there. It’s between our two busiest highways,” Coyman said. “We certainly have plenty of property available in the town that is properly zoned for homes over 55.”

No one else came forward to speak.

“Nobody else has an opinion? It’s just so sad,” said Coyman from her seat.

Council Vice President Gee Williams asked where in the process would be appropriate to require spray irrigation land for wastewater disposal be provided by developer of the senior living facility.

“You can’t approve a project if it doesn’t have all the necessary public services and utilities available,” said Gaskill. “If there’s going to have to be provided spray area in order to accommodate a potential project, then obviously if a spray area isn’t available you can’t approve the project.”

The BZA can also put conditions on conditional use developments, including the provision of land for public facilities like spray irrigation, Gaskill said.

Councilwoman Ellen Lang recused herself from the vote. Lang asked the Berlin Ethics Board earlier this winter to rule on whether her freelance accounting work for a company part owned by Moore qualified as a conflict of interest. Although Lang has met with the Ethics Board, it has not yet informed her of the findings.

“Until that time I am recusing myself from votes that involve people I do accounting for,” Lang said Monday night.

The town council voted 4-0 to approve the text amendment.