Berlin’s Utility Expansion Not A Land Grab

BERLIN — Despite some initial belief to the contrary, the Berlin Town Council promised residents this week that an expansion of water and sewer services along Main Street isn’t a thinly-veiled land grab.

“We don’t want the misconception that we are trying to expand the town limits,” said Mayor Gee Williams.

The project to extend water and sewer coverage has been in the pipeline since this summer. The move is geared toward offering services to several commercial properties in the area who have expressed the desire to connect to the town, according to Williams. Whether any residents wish to connect has not been established.

“We haven’t even factored one resident coming in,” he said.

The statement seemed to surprise the more than half-dozen property owners living outside of town who attended the meeting with questions about whether the extension of services would force them to be annexed into Berlin. Even after Williams’ assurance, some still had concerns.

“That’s a lot of if, ands, or buts,” asserted Anne Vessey.

Vessey told the council that she had considered moving into Berlin proper years ago but eventually decided she couldn’t afford it.

“Financially it wasn’t feasible for me to build in your lovely town,” she said.

With water and sewer services being extended through her property, Vessey made no secret of her fear that the town was trying to swallow her land. It was a fear echoed by several in the audience along with Vessey, and one the council promised was completely unfounded.

“You have to ask to be in the town,” explained Councilman Troy Purnell.

Purnell told Vessey that to hook up to town water and sewer a property owner must first become a resident of Berlin. To become a resident, however, one must ask to be included, said Purnell. He admitted that there are exceptions to that rule if enough of the property owners in a given landmass wish to be included they can bring unwilling neighbors in with them.

Town Attorney Dave Gaskill explained that, in such a case, at least 25 percent of landowners in a given area would need to petition for annexation into the town, as referenced in Maryland Code article 23A, section 19.

But forcing people in is not the council’s goal, according to Purnell, even if previous councils have made such attempts.

Williams further built on the point by reasoning that it would actually hurt Berlin to balloon in size by absorbing all of the surrounding area at this point.

“We want to have a limited size of the town forever,” he said.

The plan Williams outlined would include small amounts of growth for Berlin heading into the next century with the end goal of “almost creating an artificial island” of the municipality. Wildly trying to annex property into the town wouldn’t fit into this strategy, he pointed out, especially if that meant basically strong-arming non-residents to become part of Berlin.

“Nobody along Route 346 got forced into town,” he reminded the audience, citing a similar prior extension of water and sewer services.

Williams did admit that the current council cannot speak for what the next might try to do or the one after them and so on.

“I don’t know any way to guarantee the future,” he told Vessey.

At her request, however, Williams agreed to send out a letter restating the council’s promise not to force annexation. He did point out, though, that such a letter was redundant, since the council’s promise was given in an open meeting and is a matter of “public record.”