BERLIN – A Berlin man outlined his plan to develop property on Route 50 as a gateway to town at a Berlin Planning Commission meeting this week.
On Wednesday, local resident Ernest Gerardi and attorney Joe Moore shared plans for an 18-acre parcel between Route 50 and Route 346. A conceptual site plan shows a welcome sign, convenience store, produce stand, car dealership, hotel and apartments on the property.
“His goal would be to make this really a focal point for the entrance to the town,” Moore said.
According to Gerardi, he’d long considered the oddly configured parcel at the intersection of Route 50 and Old Ocean City Boulevard — near the state police barracks — an “ugly” piece of property. Driving down Route 50 one day, however, he realized that it could be a perfect gateway to the town.
“It has tremendous visibility,” he said.
He said he discussed his idea with the mayor, who he says told him the concept made some sense. Gerardi then went ahead and purchased the land three years ago. He said he spent the ensuing few years working with Delmarva Power to relocate electric easements — at a cost of $189,000 — so they wouldn’t hinder potential development. He also cleaned up the property, demolishing the dilapidated structures that had been present.
While the site plan presented Wednesday is not set in stone, Gerardi said he was committed to establishing a convenience store — preferably one with a connected fast-food restaurant — on the property, along with a produce stand. He’s also committed to providing the town with a permanent easement for a welcome sign.
Gerardi said he wanted to get people traveling down Route 50 toward Ocean City accustomed to stopping at the proposed convenience store. He plans for it to include a Berlin display, which would feature brochures and information about the town.
“These people aren’t going to run down the street and come right into Berlin,” he said. “They’re on their way to Ocean City. My thought was look they pick up stuff and take it with them. What happens after a day or two on the beach, they start thinking of what other things they might do … It will get more people coming to visit Berlin in terms of the business of Berlin but not an overwhelming ‘it’s going to drown our town.’”
Moore said he and Gerardi weren’t seeking any formal approvals this week but were sharing plans for the property with the commission in anticipation of eventually seeking annexation into Berlin. He said the first step would be moving the parcel into the town’s growth area. Moore said that while the property could be rezoned and developed even if it remained in the county, Gerardi was intent on seeking annexation into Berlin.
“We consider this an ideal spot for the gateway to Berlin,” Moore said.
He said that Berlin was not easy to find for motorists heading toward Ocean City, as they often passed the Route 818 entrance to town without realizing it. Moore said Route 346 was actually the Blue Crab Scenic Byway and as such should be showcased as an entrance to Berlin.
Moore said he’d discussed extending water and sewer service to the property with town staff and that those details would be finalized in the potential annexation agreement. He added that if the property were developed as Gerardi proposed the town would receive approximately $105,000 in tax benefits.
Commission member Pete Cosby said the town might be “leapfrogging” a bit by annexing the property but acknowledged that Route 346 was a natural gateway into Berlin.
“My feeling is as it was three years ago,” he said. “Annex it and get on with it.”
Chris Denny, chair of the commission, pointed out that Gerardi was known for quality work in Berlin.
“I’d like to see Mr. Gerardi build it,” he said. “We know what he’s going to build.”
Commission member Ron Cascio said in spite of Moore’s presentation regarding the need for a more visible entrance into Berlin he was not convinced the proposal was good for the town.
“I read some of the stuff you brought out as reasons as reasons not to,” he said.
Cascio said that if the town annexed Gerardi’s parcel the other properties between it and the downtown area would seek annexation. Moore, however, said he didn’t see this proposal bringing a “tidal wave” of annexations.
Cascio said he nevertheless thought it likely and said the recent annexation of the property near Stephen Decatur Middle School had concerned residents. He said he didn’t believe town officials had done their “due diligence” when they researched the impact of that annexation.
Moore agreed that annexation of residential property could impact traffic and services. He said that if Gerardi had proposed a residential project he’d have advised him against it.
“I don’t have to take cases I don’t believe in,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t have taken this if I didn’t feel this was a benefit to the town.”
Commission member Barb Stack said that annexing property so far from the town’s center would lead people to believe that additional annexations were coming, whether they were planned or not. Cosby pointed out that if the town didn’t annex the property, the county could rezone it and it could be developed anyway.
“This is not going to happen without Berlin sewer,” Cascio interjected.
He maintained that he was against the potential annexation and would work against it as much as he could. Stack said she had similar concerns but agreed with Moore that it was hard for people to find their way into Berlin. She expressed concern with the idea of apartments on Gerardi’s property, which is right on a major highway, but said the proposed hotel could benefit the town.
“There’s a huge amount of development potential on this property,” she said. “I recognize there’s good aspects as well as these potentially problematic issues.”
Moore pointed out that if the property was eventually annexed, the commission would have oversight of the proposed development during the site plan approval process.
In order to move forward with his plans, Gerardi will have to formally ask the commission to recommend to the town council that his property be included in Berlin’s growth area.