Building Size Cap Sought Before Vote On Berlin Zoning Code Change

BERLIN – A text amendment related to the apartment complex proposed for Seahawk Road will go back to the Berlin Planning Commission after concerns were raised by residents and town council members.

The text amendment that would have allowed Rinnier Development to construct apartment buildings bigger than those currently allowed by town code was withdrawn this week after members of the Berlin Town Council indicated they wouldn’t approve it as written. Officials said they weren’t comfortable with the fact that as proposed, the text amendment did not include a cap on the size of potential buildings but simply stated that when the planning commission permitted it, a developer could exceed the existing 12-unit limit.

“I’m not comfortable without a cap,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “Whatever that cap should be should go back to the planning commission. I don’t want to do our job and do their job.”

Currently, the town code does not allow buildings with more than 12 units. The text amendment that had been proposed by attorney Mark Cropper on behalf of Rinnier Development would have given the planning commission the power to permit buildings with more than 12 units in certain cases. The amendment Cropper drafted said that when “public necessity, convenience, general welfare and good zoning practice” will be better served by buildings with more than 12 units, the planning commission “may allow a multi-family building to consist of any number of dwelling units as determined on a case by case basis.”

Cropper said he drafted the ordinance in cooperation with the town’s attorney and pointed out that it preserved the existing 12-unit limit but gave the planning commission a bit of flexibility.

“It does give the planning commission the ability to deviate from those 12 units if a better development can be created,” he said.

Cropper said the Seahawk Road apartment project would be a better development if it included a mix of 12-, 24- and 36-unit buildings. He said the consolidation of the apartments would allow for more open space.

“The planning commission, they thought that was a good thing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a much more attractive project with fewer buildings.”

During Monday’s public hearing on the proposed amendment, resident Mitchell David — a local Realtor — asked the council to give the issue more thought.

“This is actually changing the zoning code,” he said. “Let’s be honest about this. I think you’re opening the flood gates on other properties. That’s my concern.”

David said he liked Rinnier Development’s concept for the Seahawk Road property but wanted the planning commission to reconsider the amendment since it could affect future development elsewhere in town. He added that he was concerned because there was no limit on the potential size of a building.

Resident Darlene Jameson said she also felt the text amendment needed to be reconsidered. She said she had a child who attended Stephen Decatur High School and most of her fellow parents weren’t aware of the changes that would be coming to the already busy street.

“The traffic’s a nightmare,” she said. “I really think we need a lot more public input on this whole thing.”

Council members pointed out that the project had been advertised and discussed at several public meetings but agreed that the amendment could be more specific. Councilmember Lisa Hall said she didn’t want to see really large buildings in town.

“The code was set for Berlin to try to keep the town quaint …,” she said. “We’re at a critical point with this town. We’ve got to protect it.”

Williams said that a decade ago, there were few rules governing development in Berlin. In recent years, however, officials have tried to ensure that the town maintains its character. At the same time, he said it was critical for Berlin to have a variety of housing options.

“Right now we’re trying to find a happy medium,” he said. “We need a variety of types of housing. We have young families lined up to move here and there’s no place for them to live.”

He agreed that the amendment should include a limit on the size of buildings though and recommended that the issue be sent back to the planning commission.

“Pioneers tend to have to crawl and climb and hike a little higher,” he told Cropper.

With the council’s consensus that the amendment should be reconsidered by the planning commission, Cropper withdrew it. He said Tuesday that he would draft a new amendment that would include a cap on building size to present to the planning commission in the future.