Berlin Planning Commission Rejects New Dollar General

Berlin Planning Commission Rejects New Dollar General
Berlin Planning

BERLIN – A decades-long deed dispute and traffic concerns put an end to the new Dollar General proposed for Berlin.

The Berlin Planning Commission voted Wednesday night to deny site plan approval for a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General near the intersection of Route 346 and Route 113. Dollar General currently has a store in the Food Lion Shopping Center on the western corner of Routes 346 and 113, but it wants to build a stand-alone store across the highway.

The decision came after hours of discussion regarding an easement that might or might not be on the property and the impact the new store would have on an already congested road.

“I do not feel this project benefits our community,” said planning commission member Barb Stack. “There’s too much of a problem with traffic. It’s an important corner. I think this can be developed better.”

Representatives from Oxford Chase Development, the company behind the proposal, argued that they had had a traffic study done, received approval from Maryland’s State Highway Administration and even received preliminary site plan approval from the planning commission before Wednesday’s denial.

“You’re effectively putting a moratorium on development on 346,” said Howard Crossan, president of the company.

The planning commission’s decision on the Dollar General came after a vote on the site plan was delayed last month when commission members became aware of concerns from neighboring property owners. Several of them shared their worries Wednesday.

“Traffic there is a mess,” said Donald Price, who lives near the site. “I have to wait 10 minutes to get out of my driveway.”

Attorney Hugh Cropper said officials at Atlantic General Hospital, which is across the street from the piece of property proposed for the Dollar General, criticized the traffic study the developers had done. He said that while the summer months were the busiest for the hospital — which is visited by 100,000 people a year — the study had been done in November. He said Healthway Drive, the lane from Route 346 to the hospital, was the only way for patients to reach the facility unless they came by helicopter. He added that traffic backups already occurred on Route 346 near the intersection of Route 113.

“Just this morning they were stacked up from the stoplight to Healthway Drive,” he said.

Crossan said State Highway Administration officials had asked him to have the traffic study done during the school year. Betty Tustin, the traffic engineer who performed the study, said some congestion in the area was to be expected.

“There is going to be a queue,” she said. “We’ll help alleviate that by extending the left turn lane (onto Route 113).”

She added that a Dollar General was a form of development that would generate relatively little traffic. The only commercial use that would produce less vehicles, she said, was a self-storage facility.

Nevertheless several planning commission members expressed concern about adding to Route 346 traffic so close to Route 113. Commission member Pete Cosby said that because the Dollar General property wasn’t the only vacant land in the area, future development would worsen the situation.

“For us to approve this strikes me as irresponsible,” he said. “If we give access to you, I think it’s creating a detrimental traffic situation.”

Cosby said the owners of the site should work with other land owners in the area to set up a shared access point.

Stack offered similar comments.

“It’s such a predominant corner,” she said. “It really ought to be all done at one time.”

John Camp, vice president of Oxford Chase Development, said he didn’t understand why his company should be burdened by nearby properties that were not even developed yet.

“My frustration’s high with this,” he said. “We think this is a good development. We’re creating tax dollars and jobs. We’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Cosby said the property owners had the chance to work together before they developed their sites.

“It’s not that easy,” Camp said. “You can’t control somebody else.”

Moving on from the traffic issue, commission member Ron Cascio questioned whether there was an easement on the Dollar General property. Representatives from Oxford Chase Development said the neighboring property had an easement on the site in the past but that it was no longer valid. Mark Cropper, attorney for the neighboring property’s owner, contended that the easement was still there.

“There’s no doubt it’s there,” he said.

Cropper said his client had no interest in whether the site was developed or not but wanted to ensure the easement was protected. He said officials from Oxford Chase Development had even acknowledged the easement in a meeting with him last week.

Representatives from Oxford Chase replied that they only said that the easement “was there” not that it still existed. Crossan added that if there was a question about the easement, he would not proceed with the building until it was worked out. He asked the commission to consider granting the Dollar General project approval on the condition that he addressed the issue in negotiations with Cropper’s client.

Camp agreed, and said that if for some reason the disagreement was not resolved he wouldn’t go forward with the project anyway, regardless of site plan approval.

“I cannot develop that property with a right of way down the middle,” he said.

Dave Gaskill, the town’s attorney, told the planning commission he couldn’t judge whether the easement was there or not but that if it was, the site plan did not meet the town code because it did not reflect it.

Cascio made the motion to deny the site plan approval, citing the number of “unknowns” associated with the project. The commission approved it unanimously.