BERLIN – A Berlin resident has launched a petition drive in an effort to make the town’s latest annexation a referendum question.
Berlin resident Jeff Smith is asking town voters to sign a petition that would force the town to hold a referendum for the annexation approved by elected officials May 28. The property the town council voted to annex, six acres near the intersection of Route 50 and Route 818, is expected to become the site of a 7-Eleven gas station and convenience store.
“What I want is to give people the opportunity to have a conversation on whether or not this is something the town really wants,” Smith said.
Smith, who’s lived in town for nearly six years, initially asked officials to postpone their decision regarding the proposed annexation. When that did not happen, he said he explored other options and learned residents were able to petition for a referendum. According to the Maryland Municipal League’s Municipal Annexation Handbook, an annexation resolution becomes effective 45 days after its passage unless it is petitioned to referendum. If Smith is able to get 20% of the town’s registered voters — roughly 700 people — to sign his petition for referendum, the town will be required to hold a referendum asking voters for a yes or no vote on the issue.
“It needs to have signatures from 20% of the voters in town limits to qualify,” Town Administrator Laura Allen said.
She said that if the petition came in with what appeared to be the valid number of signatures, the annexation process would be put on hold while municipal officials worked with the county to verify the names on the petition.
“If the petition qualifies we’d have to take the annexation to referendum,” she said. “Basically, we’d have to have a special election at a cost of $2,000 to $3,000.”
The last time an annexation went to referendum in Berlin was in 2000. The referendum resulted in the annexation of the Davis Taylor Farm.
Allen pointed out that the six acres had been identified as a potential development site years ago.
“The property was already in the growth area in the town’s comprehensive plan,” she said. “In 2010 the town identified this as one of the areas they intended to have development.”
Property owner Spiro Buas also believes officials planned for the land to one day be developed. Though he owns six lots near the intersection of Route 818 and Route 50 now, he’s owned two of them for decades. He said the town ran water and sewer infrastructure by the property years ago. He said that the annexation agreement the council approved last month ensures that the developer is responsible for costs associated with the project.
“There’s not any additional cost to the city,” he said.
Buas said the portion of his property closest to Route 50 was already in town limits. He proposed the annexation of the adjacent land, however, so that he’d have a larger site to work with, which he believes would allow for development of a better project.
“Either way I do something there,” he said. “It makes sense for the town to control the look to one of the entrances to Berlin.”
He added that the kind of convenience store he was envisioning for the property was something Berlin didn’t yet have.
“Today’s modern convenience store, to be competitive, is not the stores of the past,” he said. “Right now Berlin doesn’t have that.”
Smith, while he is concerned about the project itself, says his effort to bring the issue to referendum is more about giving residents a voice in the matter. As he sat at the entrance of the Berlin library collecting signatures this week, residents who signed expressed their frustration with the lack of control they felt they had.
“My goal is to get the signatures so we can start the dialogue,” Smith said.
He’s worried that officials are just looking at the additional tax revenue annexations bring and are not considering the long-term costs associated with them.
“The town has designed itself now so that in order to break even we have to keep growing,” he said. “If we continue on this path, growing recklessly and without a vision, we’re going to turn into Salisbury.”
Smith plans to knock on doors Saturday seeking signatures for the petition. In the meantime, copies can be signed at Burley Oak Brewery and Salt Water Media. Stephanie Fowler of Salt Water Media said she thought the petition was a way to make sure residents’ voices were heard. While she does not live in Berlin, she is a property owner and said she has been troubled by recent events in town, specifically the tax increases and annexations.
“We have been voicing our concerns over and over again and yet it still feels like we are not being heard,” she said. “I hate that everything feels confrontational now because that isn’t the Berlin I opened my store in.”
She said she didn’t want a potential 7-Eleven at a dangerous intersection.
“We do not want to see the Route 50 corridor become the primary commerce district for the town when we have a beautiful, thriving downtown,” she said.