Commission Sends Text Amendment Back To Council With 36-Unit Cap On Buildings

Commission Sends Text Amendment Back To Council With 36-Unit Cap On Buildings

BERLIN – A text amendment to allow the apartments proposed for Seahawk Road to move forward as planned will again return to the town council following a favorable recommendation from the Berlin Planning Commission.

On Wednesday, the planning commission agreed to forward the proposed amendment, which will allow the apartment complex to include buildings larger than those currently permitted, on to the council with a favorable recommendation. While the commission had already done so once, at the request of the council the text amendment was changed to include a limit — 36 units — on a building’s potential size. Attorney Mark Cropper, who proposed the amendment on behalf of developer Blair Rinnier, said the change would simply allow the developer to construct buildings of 24 and 36 units as opposed to the 12-unit buildings currently allowed by town code.

“In his opinion, he can do a nicer, more attractive project if he can exceed 12 units,” Cropper said.

Rinnier has presented plans to build a 700-plus unit apartment complex on Seahawk Road. Site plan approval for the first, 150-unit phase of the project was granted but was contingent on the town council’s passage of a text amendment that would enable Rinnier to build the 24- and 36-unit buildings shown in the plan. The amendment stated 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.”

Though the planning commission supported the text amendment, when it was considered by the town council officials said they would like to see it include a limit — a cap–on the potential size of a building.

Cropper went back to the planning commission with a proposal to include 48 units as a cap instead of “any number.” Council member Lisa Hall, who was in the audience at Wednesday’s meeting, said she thought the text amendment would allow for buildings that were too big for Berlin.

“Scale and size is important,” she said. “I feel like we have something special in Berlin and it’s important in the future that growth complement the character of the town.”

She said the text amendment would open the door for other projects in town. She added that Rinnier knew what the code allowed when he bought the property.

Cropper said his client was aware of the 12-unit buildings allowed by the existing code and was willing to build his project to fit that if he had to. Rinnier, however, would rather create an apartment complex with a central park theme — seven buildings surrounding a pond — rather than a more sprawling development of 15 smaller buildings. Rinnier said there would be no room for the pond if he had to increase the number of buildings on the site.

“When you separate buildings, you have to add setbacks,” he said. “It would take away our central park theme.”

Councilman Thom Gulyas, who was also in attendance at the meeting, said he was willing to leave the number of units in each building to the planning commission. He said he did, however, want to see a limit, as he was bothered by the words “any” and “convenience” in the proposed amendment.

“I don’t feel comfortable with an appointed board charting the direction of the town,” he said.

Cropper replied that the language of the amendment had been developed with the help of Dave Gaskill, the town’s attorney.

Resident Mitchell David also voiced concerns about the proposal. He said he didn’t have any problem with Rinnier’s project but was worried about what the text amendment would allow other developers to do.

“I think we’re being short-sighted in only discussing this one project,” he said.

Planning commission member Barb Stack offered similar comments. She said she didn’t want to see Berlin surrounded by suburban sprawl.

“The size is not in the flavor of the town of Berlin,” she said. “I hate to set this precedent.”

Cropper pointed out that the amendment preserved the 12-unit limit already in the code but simply gave the planning commission power to allow for larger buildings if it saw fit. He said the developer in each case would have to convince the planning commission that deviating from the 12 units would create a better project.

Commission member Newt Chandler said the town had to have faith in its planning commission.

“We have nixed projects that were onerous before,” he said. “You’ve got to trust your planning commission.”

When the possibility of setting the cap on units at 24 was mentioned, Rinnier explained that the reason he’d included one 36-unit building in his project was to accommodate an elevator. He said he’d promised neighboring property owners that he’d take the need for senior housing into account and was creating a building that would appeal to them.

“An elevator is not cost effective in a 24-unit building,” he said.

Commission member John Barrett, who also owns several apartment buildings, said none of his buildings included an elevator and so potential tenants were always looking for space on the first floor. Barrett made the motion to pass the amendment, with a 36-unit size limit, on to the mayor and council.

“I think it’s a great use and a great plan,” he said. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Though Planning Director Dave Engelhart advised the commission to hold a public hearing (at its November meeting) on the amendment before forwarding it to the council, commissioners agreed it wasn’t necessary. They pointed out they hosted a public hearing on it last month and had allowed public comment during the current session. In addition, a public hearing will accompany the town council’s consideration of the amendment.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.