Property Annexation Comes With Concerns
(The following letter was submitted via email to Berlin Mayor and Council members prior to Tuesday’s meeting on an annexation vote. The writer approved it for publication.)
I have some concerns about the annexation proposal that is on the table for tonight. These concerns do not eliminate the idea of annexing the property in question, but they do pose enough questions that I think this proposal needs to be postponed until further study can be completed.
- Finances. Considering the town’s current budget issues, putting forth an annexation agreement that leaves Berlin on the hook for the cost of electric utility costs over $5,000 is not only bad optics, but bad for Berlin’s budget. (See section 8.5.1.) If this developer wants to become part of Berlin, they need to be willing to pay for all costs associated with that.
- Traffic. The annexation plan as presented includes a proposed gas station to be developed on site, with a significant portion of the property open with no current definite plans for development. This gas station plan shows a single drivable entrance and exit onto Main Street almost across from Main Place. Section 8.3 details that a traffic study still needs to be done. No annexation agreement should be approved or signed until a traffic study has been completed. As all of you know, that part of Main Street is a narrow, two lane road, and already a dangerous intersection. Several accidents have occurred there in the last several years, and there is a great risk of more to come without proper planning and development of the intersection.
- Public discussion. The annexation agreement was presented to the public, and to the members of the council, on Thursday, giving our elected representatives a shockingly short time (and over a holiday weekend) to fully vet the agreement. Additionally, the shortened time has given the public very little input on the actual annexation. (See http://www.mdmunicipal.org/DocumentCenter/View/17/MunicipalAnnexationFlowchart)
- Public Notice. Maryland Annexation Procedures also state that after a resolution has been presented to the town council the town must publish notice of the proposed annexation hearing “at least 4 times at no less than weekly intervals.” Was this done? The annexation proposal was only put on the agenda for council meeting on Thursday, five days before the annexation hearing tonight. That would appear to be insufficient public notice.
- Planning. How does this annexation fit in the town’s current comprehensive plan, which emphasizes business development along Old Ocean City Boulevard, and contiguous to Main Street? This plan has no connection to Berlin’s existing business community and offers nothing more than a bypass of Berlin for tourists on their way to Ocean City.
- Petition. The Maryland Municipal League’s Municipal Annexation Handbook states: “An annexation petition signed by at least 25% of the qualified voters along with the owners of 25% of total assessed property in the area to be annexed may be filed with the municipal legislative body. Alternatively, the legislative body may initiate an annexation by obtaining the consent of a like percentage of qualified voters and property owners.”
This annexation agreement states: “The Owner constitutes all the persons eligible to sign the petition…”
A full petition, signed by at least 25% of Berlin’s eligible voters, must be submitted with the annexation application. There is no such petition included with the agreement, and without that petition this annexation cannot, by law, be approved tonight.
- Environmental Issues. Part of the proposed annexed area appears to fall within a Sensitive Species Protection Area. How will development in this environmentally sensitive area be handled?
- Infrastructure. What effect will development of this property have on fire and EMS services? What will be the impact on the town’s infrastructure, not just electricity, but sewer and stormwater and water? What are the real-world, long term costs on road maintenance? On Berlin’s finite resources?
Annexing this property now, without proper time to vet the proposal, without proper input from Berlin’s residents, without following the letter of Maryland state law, without determining how this will impact Berlin for not just the next five years, but the next fifty, will further erode public confidence in the Mayor and Council, and will further the damage that years of poor planning have done to Town finances.
I urge all of you to postpone the vote on this annexation agreement.
Berlin Mayor Responds To Citizen’s Questions
(The following letter was in response to Smith’s letter to the town with publication approved.)
Thank you for your email stating your concerns and questions regarding the Athena Properties, Inc. annexation at MD 818 (North Main Street). After a presentation by the owners of the properties and a public hearing at last evening’s Mayor and Council meeting the council voted 4-1 to approve the annexation.
I wish to respond to the concerns you expressed in your May 28 email.
- Finances: The estimated cost of the Customer Service Charge for transferring electric service from Delmarva Power to the Town of Berlin is expected to be about $5,000. The agreement limits the liability of this transfer of service cost to $5,000 for the applicants. The town had received preliminary estimates from Delmarva Power, but unfortunately the DP&L executive who was handling this suddenly passed away. We are expecting this estimate to be completed by Delmarva Power in the next few weeks or months, but it is among many responsibilities the deceased employee was working on, so all parties agreed we would not indefinitely delay the annexation process which began with negotiations about nine months ago. Any customer service charge to the town must be reviewed and approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission prior to its initiation. Also, I would note that any and all electric services to the newly annexed property will generate retail electric revenue in perpetuity to the Berlin Electric Utility that will be exponentially greater than any Customer Service Charge being considered.
Prior to annexation, these properties currently pay $4,648 in property tax to Worcester County, but of course are not taxed by the Town of Berlin. With this annexation under its current use the Town will receive, before any development, $3,774 in property taxes and $1,936 in Ready-To Serve Fees. In the first stage of development, approved Monday evening, the town’s property taxes will increase to $20,000 annually plus a one-time payment of $151,008 for Equivalent Dwelling Unit Revenue (EDUs).
- Traffic: MD 818 (Main Street) is a state highway, as are a number of the longest streets in the Town of Berlin. The access and egress for motor vehicles is within the total authority of the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). They will require, as in all other cases, a traffic study of access to the Athena Properties to determine the safest manner and number of entrances and exits to these properties. The Town of Berlin has no legal authority to dictate these decisions but has a long and successful track record of working with SHA in providing questions, concerns and our recommendations for their review and consideration. Our recommendation to SHA is that they mandate two separate connections for motor vehicles to the properties. One being a right-in/right-out only access for vehicles traveling from US 50 and turning south on MD 818. The second access for both access and egress to the properties located directly in alignment with the current street access to Berlin Main Place on the opposite (eastern) side of MD 818.
The traffic issues will be answered by State Highway’s review of the traffic study that they require before any future permitting or construction could begin. It is a state road, not a Town of Berlin road, so its design and maintenance are State responsibilities with our input and feedback.
- Public Discussion: The initial public discussion and a public hearing were held during the Planning Commission meeting on March 13, 2019. The public hearing was legally advertised twice as per State Statute and Berlin Town Code, as well as posted on the Town website and Town Hall kiosks. The planning commission passed a unanimous 6-0 vote to recommend the annexation to the Mayor and Council. Numerous local news stories also detailed the meeting, and it was well attended.
- Public Notice: The assertion that the resolution be posted four times is incorrect. State Section 4-406 states that the resolution shall be advertised “… at least four times; OR if the total area of the proposed annexation is 25 acres or less, at least two times”. The Athena Properties annexation is approximately nine acres and the town was compliant with the legal advertisements that were placed twice, with the first notice being at least 15 days before the public hearing. The Berlin Planning Commission’s motion was then forwarded to Worcester County and the Md. Department of Planning for the required 30-day review period before any Public Hearing of the Mayor and Council could be advertised which was also advertised two times.
- Planning: The parcels are in Growth Area #3 of the current Berlin Comprehensive Plan. The comprehensive plan states one objective for commercial development in town would be that it be located along existing commercial routes, not just along Old Ocean City Boulevard., but also along Route 50, Route 113 and on Route 818 North Main Street. In anticipation of this growth, the town extended water and sewer lines north on Main Street to reach the northerly side of Route 50. Growth in these areas keeps the pressure off the downtown business district, as well as residential neighborhoods, a strong desire that the public expressed in our strategic plan sessions years ago.
- Petition: This annexation was initiated when the property owner filed a petition with the town, not the Mayor and Council. If the Town of Berlin was initiating an annexation, then the town who would need 25% of the eligible voters’ signatures within the property being sought for annexation. In last evening’s annexation petition there are no signatures required for the total area being assessed, since Athena Properties, Inc. is the only property owner of all properties that were annexed.
- Environmental Issues: In submitting the recommended annexation to the county and state for their 30-day review, no mention of sensitive species was made by either, and that would be a comment both would bring up if their mapping and GIS indicated it. If indeed the mapping indicates there is an environmental issue, this can be addressed as the annexation process moves forward.
- There is no measurable impact on public safety services, which we, as most municipalities consider, police, fire and EMS. The Athena Properties are already within the town’s boundaries and are contiguous to the west, east and north with incorporated areas of Berlin. As for infrastructure, no infrastructure within the parcels is or will be paid for by the town, as is the case with all development and developers.
In closing, I must strongly disagree with your statement that the Town of Berlin has not taken the time to properly vet the proposal, has not afforded an opportunity for residents to share their input, and especially that our town is not following the letter of Maryland State law. I think your conclusions are likely the result of a partial knowledge of how our annexation process is conducted.
I certainly respect your right to disagree with the decisions of the Mayor and Council, regarding this annexation or any other decision for which we are responsible, but I strongly object to any implication that our decisions are made with either disregard or the intent to do harm to the citizens we serve.
(The writer has been the mayor of Berlin since 2008.)