BERLIN – Members of the town’s planning commission are hoping to discuss Berlin’s future with county officials after concerns about growth dominated a meeting this week.
Roughly a dozen residents filled the seats that typically sit empty as the Berlin Planning Commission met Wednesday. Those in attendance said they were worried about the potential annexation of 18 acres at the intersection of Route 50 and Old Ocean City Boulevard.
“People come to Berlin from Ocean City and Rehoboth and so forth because of what it has,” resident Jim Meckley said. “The smallness. The uniqueness. The small town quality. I’d hate to see you lose that.”
According to Dave Engelhart, the town’s planning director, he included the potential annexation on the agenda as a discussion item.
“I at least wanted to have you thinking about it,” he said.
Engelhart said Berlin resident Ernest Gerardi, known for his work rehabbing historic houses throughout the downtown area, purchased the 18-acre parcel and wanted to develop it. While the property is currently a part of Worcester County’s growth area, Gerardi hopes to have it added to Berlin’s growth area so that it could eventually be annexed into town. When Gerardi shared his plans with the commission in June of 2015, its members voted in support of the concept.
“Mr. Gerardi sees it as a gateway to town,” Engelhart said Wednesday.
That, he said, was why Gerardi wanted to build a small welcome center there as well as some commercial businesses, such as a hotel and gas station.
Commission member Ron Cascio asked Engelhart whether he’d provided information regarding the request to state and county officials. Engelhart explained he’d simply forwarded them the same information he’d received from Gerardi’s attorney.
Commission member Pete Cosby pointed out that whether the town added the property to its growth area or not, it was likely to be developed regardless as a part of the county’s growth area.
“If you’re not inclined to annex and grow the town, the county’s going to do it for us and then we’re not going to have control over what’s being done,” he said.
Commission member Newt Chandler agreed and pointed out the property was along one of the town’s main corridors.
“The county already has it as a growth area,” he said.
Meckley told the commission he’d watched the town he used to live in annex additional property again and again. Subsequently tax and water bills rose. He said he was afraid the same thing would happen in Berlin.
“It concerns me…” he said. “This is small town USA. If you want the big expanse, you go to Ocean City.”
Resident Mitchell David said the town had plenty of infill lots that still needed to be developed. He also pointed out that while the developer would pay initial project costs they’d eventually fall on the municipality.
“All we’re doing is deferring these costs as we get bigger and bigger,” he said. “It worries me that it’s expansion, expansion, expansion.”
Lisa Hall, a former town council member, said the recent wastewater treatment plant upgrade had been intended to serve the town for 50 years.
“The way we’re going we’re going to run out of EDUs,” she said.
She added that at public strategic planning meetings residents had spoken against annexation over and over.
“People do not want it,” she said.
Cascio said the town’s last annexation — which allowed for the Oceans East apartments — had been a joke. Cascio said the council simply accepted the impact statements submitted by the developer. Contrary to those statements he believes the project will prove to be a drain on the town.
“We’re going to subsidize it,” he said.
Newly elected Councilman Zack Tyndall told the commission that as he’d knocked on doors campaigning last year, he’d heard many residents express concerns about annexation.
“People want to take a breather,” he said.
He echoed Hall’s concerns about the town’s wastewater treatment plant capacity.
“We have some questions to be answered,” he said. “I’d like to get in front of this early.”
Cosby said he was under the impression that whether the planning commission gave an annexation a positive recommendation or not, the council could still approve it.
“Three people can make the decision,” he said, adding that perhaps a voter referendum would be a better option. “This town has something special going for us. We’re going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg if we get rid of these green areas.”
Engelhart assured Cosby that while the council would have the final vote on an annexation, it was the planning commission that would have to agree to add a property to the town’s growth area first.
Cascio stressed that annexation was a major issue for the town and referenced comments made by Mayor Gee Williams in The Dispatch in January. It was then Williams said growth was driven by demand from the private housing sector.
“We have no control?” Cascio said. “That it’s simply a matter of market forces? I think we do have control and we just need to grab it and maintain it but if the mayor believes that’s what’s going on and he’s running the show that concerns me.”
While other commission members pointed out that the county technically had control over property outside town, Cascio said that was why he and his peers should meet with the Worcester County Planning Commission and associated staff members. The commission agreed and instructed Engelhart to set up a meeting with the county planning commission to discuss growth.