BERLIN – Six years after the Tyson chicken processing plant on the outskirts of Berlin closed its doors forever, its future remains in limbo, but demolition activity at the site this week signals something may be afoot at the historic property.
Demolition began on the site first thing Monday morning with the giant claw ripping away at the vast network of outbuildings and mechanical systems that have remained part of the local landscape ever since Tyson closed its operation on the property. However, the demolition work should not be taken as a sign the vast mixed-use residential and commercial project planned for the site is ready to move forward.
To the contrary, the property remains locked in a tangled web of sewer capacity and potential annexation issues, serving as a constant reminder of the difficulties of change in Berlin, despite the collective will to change. Schematic plans for the project have been drawn and presented for the property, but the plans remain merely conceptual at this point as a variety of factors have conspired to prevent any real change on the ground.
Not long after Tyson closed the plant, Berlin resident and developer Troy Purnell and his company Berlin Properties North (BPN) purchased the property and drew up plans for a vast mixed-use residential and commercial project with as many as 265 homes including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. Also included in the plan is about 100,000 square feet of commercial space for shops, galleries, offices and other uses compatible with ever-changing Berlin.
Sewer capacity remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks for any redevelopment of the property, just as it is throughout the growing town. Berlin is in the process of expanding its municipal wastewater treatment capacity from 600,000 gallons per day to 750,000 gpd, but the process has been a slow one and there is little capacity available for properties already within town limits without adding a major residential and commercial project. Purnell said this week the Tyson property is already physically connected to the town’s sewer system but he has been told time and time again he will have to wait for any new equivalent dwelling units, or EDUs.
“The town’s sewer pipe runs right to the property, but I’m told there is no capacity available now and there might not be any available even after the expansion of the wastewater system,” he said. “Right now, the biggest stumbling block for redeveloping this property is sewer capacity, and I don’t know that there will ever be any light at the end of the tunnel for that.”
Purnell said the town used to provide about 75 EDUs to the property when it was the chicken processing plant and that he continued to receive a bill for the sewer capacity even after he bought the property. When he pointed that out to Berlin officials, they returned his check and told him there was no sewer capacity available for the site.
While his larger plans for the site remain on hold, Purnell said this week he hopes to move forward with a first phase of the project. That includes saving the original main building of the Tyson facility, which measures roughly 30,000 square feet and converting it to office or storage space. Getting the original 75 EDUs the town supplied to Tyson several years ago would allow him to accomplish that.
“The plan has not changed for the larger project on the site, but until some capacity is made available, that remains on hold,” he said. “In the short term, I could move forward with a first phase that includes converting a large portion of the main building to a practical, logical use compared to what it is now, but I need the sewer capacity from the town.”
Berlin Administrative Director Linda Bambary agreed this week providing sewer capacity to the old Tyson site is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for its redevelopment. She said the town is going through the tedious process of expanding its existing wastewater system with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) expected to review the plans as soon as September. However, even if MDE approved the plans, it might be two years of more before any new capacity is available.
“The town is well aware of Troy’s needs and the will is there to accommodate him, but we simply don’t have the capacity available to serve that property right now,” she said. “Capacity remains the biggest stumbling block for the redevelopment of that property, but there are other issues we have to resolve.”
Those issues include a possible annexation of the vast property into town limits. Currently, the vast property is outside the limits of Berlin and falls entirely in Worcester County. There has been considerable discussion about annexing the property, but those talks have been stalled by sewer capacity and other issues such as rezoning and density.
“There are a couple of complex issues that need to be resolved,” said Bambary. “For one thing, it is in the county and needs to be annexed. I think the town has always been in favor of redevelopment, but there are things that need to be worked through first.”
Purnell said annexing the property into town limits is in the best interest of everybody involved. “I think everybody agrees that property should be annexed,” he said. “I don’t think you’d find anybody to disagree with that.”
While certain elements of the old Tyson property started to come down this week, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the long-range future of the site. Bambary said despite perceived differences of opinion on capacity and annexation issues, the relationship between the town and the developer is not adversarial.
“There are complex issues to resolve, but the town has and will continue to work through them with Troy,” she said. “I think everybody agrees his proposed project can and will be a good thing for Berlin, but we have to work through the obstacles before we get there.”