UPDATED: Berlin Mayor Breaks Split Council Vote Giving Dollar General Free Utility Connection

UPDATED: Berlin Mayor Breaks Split Council Vote Giving Dollar General Free Utility Connection
Dollar GEneral construction

BERLIN – After a heated discussion and a split vote, town officials agreed to cover the water and sewer infrastructure fees for the Dollar General being built on Decatur Street.

Mayor Gee Williams provided the tie-breaking vote Monday after the council initially voted 2-2 on a contract to have the town pay the $24,700 water and sewer connection fee for the new Dollar General. Town council members Thom Gulyas and Lisa Hall voted against the agreement, citing concerns about setting a precedent.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Gulyas said.

The contract, presented as one of several the council was to consider at Monday night’s meeting, came as a result of the town’s sale of the property at the corner of Decatur Street to Oxford Chase Development, the company building the new Dollar General.

“This is a function of the sale of the property to Dollar General and then the deeding back of a portion of that property to assist in the realignment of Decatur Street,” said Laura Allen, the town’s administrator. “The town in exchange for components of that agreement has arranged to pay for the water and sewer connection to Dollar General.”

Gulyas said this was the first time he’d heard of the town offering a free water and sewer hookup to a developer.

“I think it sets a dangerous precedent,” he said.

Gulyas pointed out that Habitat for Humanity of Worcester County had just minutes before sought and received approval to make monthly payments at zero percent interest to cover its water and sewer fees.

“And now we’re giving them away,” he said.

The mayor replied that in return for covering the connection costs the town was receiving a small section of property to allow for the realignment of Decatur and Flower streets. Town officials aim to move the end of Decatur Street so that it meets the end of Flower Street to create a traditional straight intersection.

“This was part of the agreement so that this could all be accomplished,” Williams said.

The mayor extolled the benefits of the road being straightened the property being developed commercially.

“This wouldn’t have all had to be done if Dollar General didn’t exist,” he said. “We sold them the land, otherwise that land would be sitting there not creating any tax revenues.”

Gulyas asked if all this had been agreed to when Oxford Chase purchased the land in the fall. Williams assured him that it had.

According to the agreement signed with Oxford Chase Development in October, available among the past council packets on the town’s website, the company was to provide a small piece of land as part of the sale.

“Buyer shall, at closing, execute a Deed of Dedication to the Maryland State Highway Administration and/or the seller granting SHA or the town sufficient property at the northwest corner of the premises for a right of way to align Decatur Street with Flower Street …” the agreement reads.

On the previous page, however, the document states that the buyer is expected to cover water and sewer costs.

“Buyer shall, as a condition of applying for and receiving any and all necessary zoning and building permits, agree to install, at buyer’s cost, all sewer and water infrastructure on the premises,” it reads.

According to Allen, the contract presented Monday means the town will pay for the water and sewer extension to the meter that serves Dollar General.

“Dollar General is responsible for the installation of water and sewer on the premises,” she said in an email Tuesday.

Allen also said that the portion of land the developer deeded back to the town, .58 acres, was valued at $102,933 while the water and sewer contract amounted to $24,700.

“This is an unusual situation,” she said. “It’s not every day the town sells property to a developer who deeds some property back so we can make a significant roadway improvement.  The neighborhood is very supportive of both projects. When you take the value of the property that was deeded back into consideration, the town still comes out way ahead.”

At Monday’s meeting, Hall asked why the town had even sold the company the section of land it needed to straighten the street.

“We could have sold them that property less that land,” she said, adding that like Gulyas she was worried about future developers asking for special agreements with the town. “We’re setting a precedent.”

Williams said this wasn’t the Supreme Court.

“Our decisions should be made based on the circumstances we face at any particular time,” he said.

Williams said he was the one who attended the meetings to resolve the controversy surrounding Oxford Chase Development’s plans to build a new Dollar General in Berlin. The company’s original plan to build a store at the intersection of Old Ocean City Boulevard and Route 113 was denied approval by both the town’s planning commission and board of appeals because of traffic concerns. Oxford Chase was appealing the board of appeals’ decision in Worcester County Circuit Court when the town agreed to sell the Decatur Street land to the developer. As a condition of the sale, the company dismissed its appeal.

“This all started when this got ran off the rails back before the Mayor and Council was involved,” Williams said. “We took a train wreck and created something that’s going to be important for the neighborhood. We didn’t do it for the town in general. We did this for the neighborhood.”

Hall said it was at the cost of the ratepayer though.

Williams denied that emphatically.

“No. No. No,” he said. “I am telling you this is something we’ve worked on for a year. This is nothing new. This is not a surprise.”

He said the situation would not set a precedent because the town did not ordinarily sell properties to retail developers.

“We have basically worked for years to get here …,” he said. “This is no obligation with any other developer just because we did this with a situation where basically we took adversity and turned it into a very good situation for the community. We’re not giving away a damn thing.”

Councilman Elroy Brittingham said he supported the contract because it would address a potential safety issue.

“That area is going to be a problem with traffic,” he said. “Straightening that street out is going to cause less confusion for everybody.”

Councilman Dean Burrell also spoke in favor of spending the $24,700.

“If we sold that property at top dollar to this organization with this understanding that they would deed some of the property to us and we would provide this hookup, I don’t think it sets a precedent,” he said.

He and Brittingham, joined by the mayor in his tie-breaking role, voted to approve the contract with Oxford Chase Development. Councilman Troy Purnell was absent.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

Alternative Text

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.