County’s Tweaked Route 50 Design Guidelines Seek To Spark Franchise Commercial Development

SNOW HILL – Changes to the county’s design guidelines and corridor plan are expected to increase development along Route 50 outside Berlin.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners approved revisions to both the Design Guidelines and Standards for Commercial Uses and U.S. Route 50 Transportation Corridor Plan. The changes came after months of work by a task force charged with reviewing the documents and suggesting changes to encourage development.

“I think this is a win-win for the county,” Commissioner Bud Church said. “I think it opens opportunities for businesses to come in that were prohibited before.”

The changes, presented by Phyllis Wimbrow, the county’s deputy director of development review and permitting, ranged from alterations to setback requirements to the removal of language prohibiting franchise architecture. Wimbrow explained that franchise architecture, building design synonymous with a particular brand, was almost as important as signage for some businesses.

“That had been a big bone of contention. Franchise architecture is in many cases a form of signage because it’s easily identifiable to the public,” she said. “Cracker Barrel looks like Cracker Barrel that’s how you know what it is. McDonalds looks like McDonalds because of the golden arches. The building is a sign. Previously we had basically banned franchise architecture. What we have done is taken out the prohibition on franchise architecture and instead encouraged them to incorporate elements of one or more of the three traditional forms of building style in the county.”

Wimbrow also made a point to say that though she’d used Cracker Barrel as an example, the county had no applications from the restaurant.

“We’ve had no applications for Cracker Barrel,” she said. “Don’t let that rumor get out. But we all know what Cracker Barrel looks like, they look the same everywhere.”

Commissioner Chip Bertino asked whether the proposed changes would mean certain chain stores would be done in “cookie cutter” fashion.

“We would have less to stand on,” Wimbrow said. “We changed it from a mandatory document to one that is more voluntarily to heavily encouraged.”

Bertino expressed concern regarding looser language.

“Heavily encouraged doesn’t mean jack,” he said. “Is there a concern on your part we could end up with a cookie cutter approach to architecture in areas that, quite truthfully because of some of the things that have been in place, the buildings have enhanced the area in which they are?”

Wimbrow explained that previously, the county’s requirements had been too stringent.

“Our waiver requirements were so strict you almost could not meet it,” she said, adding that the process now would be more collaborative. “The element they want to change, they still have to prove that it complies with what the objective is of that section.”

Attorney Mark Cropper, a member of the task force who routinely represents local developers, praised the commissioners for creating a task force to tackle the guidelines and corridor plan. He said the task force had been made up of a variety of people with different interests and that they’d come up with their list of recommendations by consensus.

“Nobody got everything they wanted but at the end the entire task force feels comfortable making these recommendations,” he said.

Cropper said the changes would encourage growth but at the same time would ensure that that growth fit the area.

“The document has become more flexible, more user friendly,” he said, “but the ultimate goal and objective remains.”

Cropper said he thought the changes would prove advantageous along the Route 50 corridor.

“Can you guarantee there will be a Cracker Barrel now?” Bertino asked, drawing laughter from his fellow commissioners.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” Cropper said.

Cropper did say Cracker Barrel was a good example of franchise architecture. He said prior to Tuesday’s proposed changes, the county’s standards wouldn’t have allowed franchise architecture even if it fit guidelines.

While the design guidelines target buildings, the corridor plan focuses on transportation and traffic management on Route 50 between Holly Grove Road and Seahawk Road, the area with the county’s most intense commercial zoning. Wimbrow said the changes would reduce some of the burden that had previously been placed on small properties in the area of the proposed service road. Proposed changes also included the reduction of certain buffers and distances between access points.

The commissioners voted 6-0 with Joe Mitrecic absent to approve the resolutions for the updated design guidelines and transportation corridor plan.

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.