UPDATE: Berlin Annexation Petition Falls 43 Signatures Short After Verification

UPDATE: Berlin Annexation Petition Falls 43 Signatures Short After Verification
Petition organizer Jeff Smith turns in his packet of signatures to Town Administrator Laura Allen on Friday. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN –  The annexation of property along Route 50 and North Main Street will move forward after a resident’s petition for the issue to be decided by referendum fell short.

Resident Jeff Smith presented town staff with a petition July 12 that contained signatures of 710 individuals who wanted the annexation of land near the intersection of Route 50 and Route 818 to be decided by referendum. During the signature verification process this week, town staff determined that the petition was 43 signatures short of the amount needed to trigger a referendum. It would have needed signatures from 20% of the town’s registered voters.

“The failure of the annexation petition to reach the required minimum as prescribed by state law means the approval of this property into the Town of Berlin by the planning commission in March and the mayor and council in June will proceed as planned,” Mayor Gee Williams said Thursday.

Smith spent close to a month 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. Whle Smith’s petition appeared to have met the 20% threshold, many of the signatures on his petition were determined to be invalid.

“Verification of the petitioners against the current list of registered town voters showed that 72 of the signees were not valid, including a number of duplicate signatures, bringing the total of verified petitioners to 638, a total of 43 less than the valid signatures needed to require a special election,” a news release from the town stated.

Williams said there had been a lot of misinformation in discussions with citizens regarding the impact of annexation.

““I am relieved that this annexation is going forward within the town boundaries of Berlin,” he said. “Several petitioners were told their town taxes would go up if this annexation was allowed to proceed. This is simply not true.”

Williams pointed out that because the portion of the Buas property closest to Route 50 was already in town limits, the developer could have built the proposed 7-Eleven without annexing the six acres. He stressed that all infrastructure for utilities on the property and the connection to the town’s existing sewer and water lines, which already run by the site, would be paid for by the developer.

“Ironically, if opponents to this annexation had succeeded in a special election the project would still have been built, but the town would have not been allowed to collect any property taxes from it,” Williams said. “Annexations such as this enable the Town of Berlin to expand our property tax base. Our town is still required to provide all public safety services to such properties whether they are with the town boundary or not, which represents almost 40% of our annual general fund budget. Cost will continue to go up regardless because of inflation. Everyone is better off if there is a larger number of property owners to share this inevitability.”

During an interview as he submitted the petition last week, Smith said he was simply trying to give residents a say 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.

Smith said that as he’d canvassed local neighborhoods most of the people he’d talked to had supported his effort. Nevertheless he acknowledged that he didn’t surpass the required signature threshold until the day the petition was due.

Buas, who saw the petition after it was turned in, said Monday that he suspected many of the signatures on it didn’t meet verification standards.

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.