Proposed Commercial Development Clears Growth Area Hurdle; Berlin Annexation Likely Next Step

Proposed Commercial Development Clears Growth Area Hurdle; Berlin Annexation Likely Next Step
Attorney Joe Moore and developer Ernest Gerardi are pictured before the Berlin Town Council. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – Plans for commercial development at a key entrance to Berlin are expected to move forward after municipal officials agreed to add 18 acres to the town’s growth area.

The Berlin Town Council on Tuesday voted 4-1 to add 18 acres at the intersection of Route 50 and Route 346 to the town’s growth area. Property owner Ernest Gerardi has conceptual plans for a convenience store, restaurant, retail space, hotel and car dealership for the site.

“The focal point here is to create a welcoming area to the western approach to our town,” said Joe Moore, Gerardi’s attorney.

During a public hearing Tuesday, Moore told the council that Gerardi was asking to have his property added to the growth area so that he could pursue annexation into the town. He said that while the property was already in the county’s growth area, Gerardi wanted it added to the town’s growth area so that it could be annexed and controlled by the town.

“We think it should he within the town so you can control what the appearance and concept of development is,” Moore said.

Moore pointed out that the property would increase the 500-acre growth area minimally. He also said that if developed, the property could bring close to $81,000 in tax benefits to the town. He added that as proposed, development of the property would require 43 EDUs (equivalent dwelling units) and that the town currently had 954 unassigned EDUs.

“That does not strain the future potential of the EDUs you have,” Moore said.

Gerardi, who is known for the variety of old houses he’s restored in Berlin, told the council he’d first considered the property at the intersection of Route 50 and Old Ocean City Boulevard several years ago.

“What struck me about four years ago is how ugly that was and how visible it was,” he said.

He met with the town’s planning commission prior to deciding to purchase the property to share his vision for it. The commission expressed support for his development plans.

“I live in town,” Gerardi said. “I don’t want to diminish the quality of life in town…I’m willing to work with the town. I don’t think the county should be controlling property that close to town.”

Councilman Zack Tyndall asked town staff when the next comprehensive planning process would take place. Town Administrator Laura Allen said it would be underway between now and 2020. Tyndall then suggested Gerardi delay his request until citizens had been consulted during the comprehensive planning process.

“What’s the rush?” Tyndall said.

He suggested Gerardi wait until after the process was complete.

“By the time you get to that I’ll probably be dead,” Gerardi said.

He said that when he’d shared his plans three years ago with town officials, he’d been encouraged to move forward.

“I spent a lot of money based on the good faith of what they told me,” he said. “I don’t see the purpose of the delay.”

Tyndall thanked Gerardi for the investments he’d made in town but said that during the town’s last comprehensive planning process, citizens had made it clear they didn’t want sprawl.

“I believe we develop plans for a reason,” Tyndall said. “We ask people to participate in surveys and workshops for a reason.”

When the members of the public present were invited to share their thoughts on the project, a West Street resident said he was worried that the farmland between Main Street and Gerardi’s property would be developed if the addition to the growth area was approved.

“If that gets annexed everything in between is going to get annexed,” he said.

Resident Jeff Smith agreed.

“There’s potential for opening up 500 acres of development along Old Ocean City Boulevard,” he said, adding that he thought more citizens should have the opportunity to weigh in on the proposal. “This is a pretty major thing for seven people to make a decision on.”

Resident Carol Rose said Tuesday’s public hearing was being held so that citizens could comment on the proposal. She added that she was born and raised in Berlin and would not support a project that would be detrimental to the town. She said she was in favor of Gerardi’s plans.

“It can only help us not hurt us,” she said.

Resident Cam Bunting offered similar comments.

“If anybody else was interested they’d be here tonight,” she said.

She said that land between Main Street and Gerardi’s property was already in the town’s growth area. Bunting added that she’d tried to talk to Tyndall about the project several months ago.

“You didn’t want to know the facts,” she said. “You’d already made your mind up. That was months and months ago.”

Tyndall said Bunting had not called him about the project.

Bunting went on to add that while many residents didn’t want residential sprawl, Gerardi’s project was commercial.

Following closure of the public hearing, Moore said that if Gerardi’s property was added to the growth area and subsequently annexed, that annexation would come with an agreement between the town and the property owner.

“The annexation is a mutual agreement,” he said, adding that if town leaders didn’t like the terms of the agreement they didn’t have to approve it.

Mayor Gee Williams said that the last comprehensive planning process had revealed that residents were worried about residential development.

“It was clear that there is a great concern about sprawl in terms of residential growth,” he said. “Particularly developments instead of single family homes.”

He said what was also made clear however was the fact that citizens wanted more commercial business and more year-round jobs.

“Sprawl can work in two directions,” he said. “From the town out or from the county in.”

Williams said it was up to town leaders to decide whether they wanted a substantial say regarding future development in the Berlin area or preferred to leave it up to county officials.

“It’s not their business to determine how our town develops,” he said. “In recent years we’ve built upon the legacy we’ve been given. We try to put quality over quantity in all things. It’s working. Generally speaking, the direction the town has been taking has lifted all boats.”

Councilman Elroy Brittingham said he didn’t agree with every aspect of Gerardi’s conceptual plan for the property but believed that the town should have oversight of the land.

“I think the property is too close to town to let the county decide what’s going to go there,” he said. “It’s the entrance to Berlin.”

Councilman Dean Burrell said citizens interested in commenting on the proposal had been invited to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“This meeting presents the forum for folks to discuss their opinion of this project,” he said. “There is another place folks offer us their opinions. That’s out there on the street, that’s out there at Walmart when you’re trying to pay for your groceries… The overwhelming response I have gotten for this project is that it is a positive thing.”

The council voted 4-1, with Tyndall opposed, to add Gerardi’s property to the growth area. He will now be able to formally request that it be annexed into Berlin.

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.