BERLIN – Members of the Berlin Planning Commission agreed to support a developer’s request to add to the town’s growth area.
On Wednesday the commission voted to provide a favorable recommendation to Ernest Gerardi’s request to amend the town’s growth area to include his property at the intersection of routes 50 and 346. Gerardi has plans to build a convenience store and a variety of other businesses on the 18-acre property just outside Berlin.
“To me this has been a no brainer,” commission member Pete Cosby said. “The county’s already determined this is a growth area.”
Gerardi, represented by attorney Joe Moore, told the commission — and dozens of citizens in attendance at Wednesday night’s meeting — that he hoped to develop the property with a convenience store that would feature a Berlin display as well as a hotel, car dealership and retail space. Though he’d originally considered including apartments in the project, based on concerns voiced previously by members of the commission, Gerardi removed those from his conceptual site plan.
Moore said in order to pursue his plans, following the planning commission’s recommendation Gerardi would seek the town council’s permission to amend the growth area. After that, Gerardi would be able to ask that his property be annexed into Berlin.
Moore said the property was already in the county’s growth area and that if it was added to Berlin’s growth area, it would only increase the size of the town by .3 percent. If the property is added and eventually annexed, Moore told the commission it would benefit the town with more than $80,000 in tax revenue. He said it wouldn’t burden the town’s infrastructure, as it would require just 43 EDUs (equivalent dwelling units). Moore said that while the town had EDUs reserved for some properties, there were still 967 available and unassigned.
Moore pointed out that Gerardi was known throughout Berlin for the numerous historic homes he’d renovated.
“His record speaks for itself,” Moore said.
Gerardi said that while much of the project was conceptual, he was committed to building a convenience store with a connected fast food restaurant — he mentioned McDonald’s — and wanted to provide tourists traveling down Route 50 with information about Berlin.
“I want it to be attractive when you come down Route 50,” he said.
Citizens spoke up for and against Gerardi’s proposal. Resident Amy Field said she appreciated Gerardi’s efforts restoring historic properties but wasn’t convinced the town should expand its growth area.
“My gut feeling is still that it’s not what’s best for our town,” she said, adding that the busy streets downtown showed that people weren’t having trouble finding Berlin.
Field expressed concern that the addition of something like a McDonald’s would not add to the town.
“I think it would kind of make it look like other towns,” she said.
Jonathan Hastings and Susan Childs, co-owners of property near Gerardi’s, both said they were in favor of adding the 18 acres to the growth area.
“I believe it is a good addition to the town,” Hastings said.
Resident Robert Poli said he wasn’t for or against the project but cautioned the commission about supporting too many annexations.
“Do you want Berlin to become another Salisbury?” he said.
Resident Carol Rose spoke in support of the project and praised everything Gerardi had already done in Berlin.
“He loves this town as much as I do,” she said. “He is a man of his word.”
A woman opposed to the project said she thought it would bring blight to town and would put Berlin’s recent designation as the most beautiful small town in Maryland (courtesy of magazine House Beautiful) in jeopardy.
Other residents objected. Tim Rayne Jr. said Gerardi had done a wonderful job renovating historic homes.
“I fully support what he’s trying to do,” he said.
Resident Jeff Smith spoke in opposition to the proposal and said the commission’s decision shouldn’t be based on Gerardi’s reputation.
“You don’t make plans about a town because he’s a good man,” Smith said. “A convenience store isn’t an invitation to come to Berlin. Berlin already has a visitor center. It’s on Main Street.”
Resident Mary Moore said the property in question was on a major highway and wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on the downtown district.
Baker Street resident Suzanne Parks commended Gerardi’s previous work but expressed concern regarding the impact of his current proposal.
“If he’s trying to pull in tourism, the town has got to do something about parking,” she said. “Parking is quite a problem.”
Joe Moore reminded the commission that if Gerardi’s property was eventually annexed into town, the commission would get to review any potential development as part of the site plan approval process. He said that if it was developed outside of the town, through the county, the town wouldn’t have that oversight.
Gerardi stressed that he wasn’t interested in doing anything to hurt the town he’d already invested so much time and money in.
“I have three buildings downtown,” he said. “If I thought it would hurt them, I wouldn’t do it.”
Cosby, echoing Moore’s comments, said if the property was going to be developed he wanted the town to have control over it.
Commission member Ron Cascio said that if the project was developed without being annexed into town, it would be developed on a small scale because of septic regulations.
“He’s very limited with what he could do in the county,” Cascio said.
He argued that the project would be a detriment to town and would just equate to more of the busy commercial development that exists on Route 50 in West Ocean City.
“We don’t give permits, we don’t give approvals, based on character,” he said. “We give them based on the plan. As much as Mr. Gerardi’s done for the town, it has no bearing on this.”
Commission member Barb Stack agreed and said that everyone appreciated Gerardi’s previous work.
“The issue is not about Mr. Gerardi,” she said.
Stack made a point to thank citizens for taking part in Wednesday’s lengthy hearing.
“It’s really important that we hear from the public,” she said. “This is fantastic.”
Cosby said that whether people wanted it to or not, the town was going to spread outward and take over the farmland on Route 346 as it grew.
“The county’s comprehensive plan calls for the centralization of development in population centers that already exist …,” he said, adding that the best the town could do to insulate itself would be to establish a greenbelt. “I think to draw the line before this property is wrong.”
The commission voted 5-1, with Cascio opposed, to forward a favorable recommendation regarding the expansion of the growth area to the town council. Stack abstained from the vote.