BERLIN – A renewed discussion of apartments proposed for North Main Street led to debate regarding future growth in town at a meeting of the Berlin Planning Commission this week.
On Wednesday, John Salm returned to the commission to discuss adjustments to the apartment proposal he presented last month. While commission members praised the effort he’d made, they shared strong reservations about annexation and stressed the need to protect the character of the town.
“It’s a jewel,” commission member Pete Cosby said. “We can wreck this thing.”
Salm, who in August proposed an 80-unit apartment development on North Main Street, came to the commission this week to share adjustments he’d made to the plan based on comments officials made last month. He said that though he owned 19 acres, the proposed development would take place on just the seven acres north of the power lines. The property, he said, was in a town growth area.
“Currently we’re C-2 in the county,” he said. “If you all think we have something you want I’ll start the formal process of annexation.”
He said that based on the previous discussion and concern about the “massiveness” of the buildings, he’d reduced the proposed building size to three stories. The new design would include one larger building with an elevator and two smaller buildings and in total would house 68 units. The buildings would be under the town’s 50-foot height limit.
Salm told the commission he’d used a drone to photograph the trees on the site.
“I flew my drone at 45 feet,” he said. “The buildings nestled in these trees are going to have full canopy wrapping around them at 45 feet.”
He added that he still wanted to do four story buildings and said that if the commission had interest, he could give the buildings more of a Victorian look. He offered a proposed name of the community as Victorian Oaks Manor.
Chris Denny, chairman of the commission, said residents he’d spoken to didn’t like the proposal.
“I haven’t had one person make a positive comment in doing what you want to do down there,” he said.
Cosby said he’d initially been opposed to the proposal but did like the idea of a development with a Victorian look.
“The architecture can sell me, maybe,” he said. “I think it’s very creative, very inventive.”
He added that if the property wasn’t developed this way, it would likely become more medical offices or mini storage.
“I really don’t want to see this entrance to Berlin have a hard commercial look,” he said. “This is a mixed use that’s economically feasible.”
Commission member Matt Stoehr, who spoke in support of the project last month, said he believed Berlin needed more residential options. He said a lot of rentals in town were older, run down houses. He acknowledged that Oceans East was providing more space but was not close to Berlin’s downtown.
“I still have a lot of hopes for something like this,” he said.
Commission member Ron Cascio said the discussion was getting ahead of itself.
“We’re talking about annexing another piece of property into the town of Berlin for residential use,” he said. “That’s what we need to talk about… All I hear from people in town who I’m here to represent is they’ve had enough of it.”
“I think you need to sell this project publicly,” he said.
Cascio said he wouldn’t be voting to support any annexations until the town had a proper discussion regarding growth. He said that because the town had the water and sewer infrastructure developments needed, the town had some power.
Salm pointed out that while he needed town infrastructure to develop apartments, he had sufficient capacity on site to develop the land commercially. He said he could build contractor shops and small retail establishments with the sewer capacity he had now.
Cosby asked Cascio what he envisioned for North Main Street.
“I don’t know but this is what my mind says is 10 pounds in a five-pound bag,” Cascio said. “What people are telling me unsolicited is we’ve got enough and we need to consider these annexations. It’s really something people are talking about. We can’t stay static obviously but we need to do things in a different way than we have been doing them.”
Cosby said that maybe the town needed to redraw its growth areas if citizens didn’t want development. Cascio pointed out that the county had set up growth areas outside of town.
“I think we have more growth areas than we need,” he said.
Salm said that there were properties outside of his that were already annexed.
Cosby brought up the concept of a land donation to the town tied to Salm’s development. He said he was trying to come up with a way to make the project palatable to residents.
“If we don’t annex, the county’s going to control development on that road,” he said.
Cascio maintained his objections to annexation and indicated the growth would never stop.
“It’s just like cancer,” he said. “It continues to grow until it eats the host.”
Cosby said the public needed to be involved in the discussion to understand what was at stake.
“They need to understand if we don’t control it the county controls it,” he said. “We’re in this catch 22. I don’t want to see more commercial development up and down this road. If we get a great building, that’s to me a damn sight better than a bunch of little square commercial buildings lining the road.”
He added that the Abbott Farm, opposite side of Main Street, would likely one day be a housing development, as the property was zoned residential in the county.
“That’s your next fight,” he said.
Cascio said the town didn’t have to let it happen. He suggested the town explore agricultural preservation programs. He added that there were state and federal programs that could be explored.
“That’s the kind of discussion we need to have,” Cascio said.
Planning Director Dave Engelhart pointed out that the commission would be reviewing the town’s comprehensive plan in the near future.
As for his proposal, Salm offered to have a meeting with commission members and members of the public, who because of COVID-19 restrictions haven’t been able to attend town meetings, to talk about the project.
Commission members agreed that public education was needed but said that even once meetings opened up to the public next week, social distancing wouldn’t allow many people to attend.
“I just don’t think we’ll be able to do it anytime soon,” Cascio said.