BERLIN – A petition to have the annexation of property along Route 50 and North Main Street decided by referendum has been submitted to town officials.
On July 12, resident Jeff Smith handed over a petition with signatures of 709 individuals who want the annexation of land near the intersection of Route 50 and Route 818 to be a referendum question. If officials determine that 20% of the town’s registered voters have signed the petition, the town will move forward with a referendum.
“We’re in the signature verification stage right now,” Town Administrator Laura Allen said this week.
Smith spent the last three weeks gathering signatures for the petition, which he created after the town council approved the annexation of six acres on Route 818 owned by Spiro Buas’ Athena Properties. In Maryland, there is a 45-day period after annexation approval during which citizens can petition for referendum. A municipality is required to hold a referendum asking residents for a yes or no vote on the annexation if a petition signed by 20% of the town’s voters is submitted.
According to the Worcester County Board of Elections, there are 3,407 registered voters in Berlin. While Smith’s petition appears to have met the 20% threshold, town staff are verifying the signatures by comparing them to a list of registered voters provided by Worcester County.
“Nothing can happen until the verification of signatures is complete,” Allen said.
If the petition qualifies, the town will schedule the referendum, which will essentially be a special election asking voters for a yes or no on the annexation.
Smith, who initially asked the council to delay the annexation, said he went ahead with the petition in an effort to give citizens input in the annexation process.
“This is about giving the people of Berlin an opportunity to have a voice and have a vote in what happens to the town and its future,” he said.
He added that as he’d knocked on doors to get signatures most people were aware of the effort and supported it.
“Half the people knew right off,” he said. “About half of them knew a little bit but wanted to hear more. Only in about 10% of cases did people not know anything or not want to sign.”
Smith acknowledged that as late as the day before the petition was due he’d been unsure whether he’d get enough signatures. The day it was due, however, several people turned in pages of signatures they’d collected.
“This was definitely not just me, this was an effort of a lot of people to do this,” he said.
Buas, who hopes to develop his property with a 7-Eleven, said the petition has not changed his plans. He pointed out that while he asked the town to annex six acres, the portion of his property closest to Route 50 is already within 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.
“My plans haven’t changed one bit,” he said. “The end result may be different but it’ll still get built. It just won’t look as nice.”
Buas said he’d seen Smith’s petition and thought it contained “more than a handful” of signatures that wouldn’t meet verification standards. He acknowledged that if a special election were held, opponents of the annexation were more likely to come out to vote than those who were ambivalent. Nevertheless he doesn’t think the referendum threshold will be met.
“I don’t think we’re going to get there,” he said.