BERLIN – As the town’s growth continues to be a concern among residents, candidates in this fall’s municipal election agree that annexations need to be looked at carefully moving forward.
Both mayoral and town council candidates were asked to share their thoughts on growth during this month’s virtual town hall sessions hosted by The Dispatch. Plans are underway for a hotel and convenience store on annexed property at the intersection of North Main Street and Route 50 while an apartment complex south of there has also been proposed. While some candidates stressed the need for infill development, others cited the economic benefit of annexation and the measure of control over development it provides the town.
Zack Tyndall: “There have been many annexations over the past 12 years. Over the past four years as a councilmember, I voted against every single one of them. I voted against them because I knew that the cost we’re charging out as a municipality are not equitable. They’re not covering the full cost of what it takes to bring on somebody new into the Town of Berlin. We have a water and sewer treatment plant that is at or near the capacity where we’re going to have to start the building and planning phase. With that, that fund currently has roughly $13.5 million in debt on the books. In order for us to do an expansion that’s going to take more money. We’re talking in the millions. With that being said, the only way that we’re going to be able to do that within the fund is going to be to raise water and sewer rates. That has been proposed and I don’t know if that’s the best path forward. And when we look at the EDU rates the EDU rates for us as the Town of Berlin, we’re the highest relative to our peers.
Competitive-wise for the town we really need to look at the cost structure of each annexation, what the true revenue source is going to be for the taxpayers and how that’s going to affect the town as a whole. If we look at, each annexation is different, but if we look at the electric utility if we annexed new properties, those properties are not generally able to go on to our electric service. What that does, if you take Oceans East for example, it creates a real imbalance if you look at how the fund is run because you in essence get potentially several thousand or so people in Oceans East that could dictate how the electric plant is operated but have no skin in the game. They don’t pay the same electric that we do. You have to really look at each annexation and whether there’s a better way to move forward. I’ve stood by as a councilmember, the fact that we can grow from within, we can sustain the growth from within, use the existing water and sewer line, use the existing electric utilities that run past these properties, and it’s a bigger value add for the people of Berlin. As the next mayor, I’m going to look at maximizing what we can do within before we start expanding any further.”
Bill Todd: “I agree with Zack on that point, I do. I think every annexation should be looked at separately. I also think, on both sides of the argument of annexation of property, and it’s been a very hot topic lately, you also with annexation you have a little bit more control of what can happen in the town. It takes a little bit away from the county at that point. We can kind of control what we want to do. Take it all case by case, but on the same note, I’m not adamantly against annexation, especially if it means protecting what we already have. I like to look at both sides of the coin and to be perfectly honest my opinion really doesn’t matter on this subject. I’d do whatever the public would want me to do at this junction because I know it’s a very hot topic right now and there’s a lot of people that don’t want to see any growth but on the same note you have to understand that in order to maintain our way of life here money needs to come in. So there’s two sides to that coin and as I said before it requires a lot more discussion especially with the public and those are the people I’m here to defend.”
Gee Williams: “We’re talking about annexation and I think something that needs to be understood by folks not only running for office but also who are going to be doing voting, is that Berlin needs both residential and commercial development. This is not about approving anything anywhere, it’s about putting the right things in the right places. Without measured incremental growth, the citizens of Berlin will face two disturbing alternatives. With only infill development, which I understand some people think that will be the solution to everything, either of two things will happen because Berlin’s property tax base will be basically stagnant. There will be a steady decline in the quality and availability of town services for all citizens, businesses and property owners or, to keep our town’s quality of life, we will have to raise property taxes regularly which is not something we do to keep up with growing inflation and expenses. That means that the transformation of longtime residents and businesses moving out of town while more affluent people move in who can afford the higher rates.
Over a few years, Berlin will become a community only affordable to the well to do. But responsible growth keeps that from happening. Reasonable and responsible growth is good for our community, not only today but in our future. I think it’s a matter of annexing at the right time in the right place for the right thing. I think that’s what we’ve been doing and we need to continue. I’d like to see boundaries that are set up for where we should be in 20 years, where we should aim for in 50 years, where should we be by the end of the century. And those plans, to have growth boundaries, so that we know where the areas are that we want to grow, this also eliminates the conflict that we would be otherwise creating where it’s, think the county’s going to say no to business and residential development immediately next to town if Berlin does not responsibly annex those areas? That’s how sprawl happened in the last century between Baltimore and Washington. The towns didn’t annex so the counties just built right around them. You can’t tell where one town begins and another ends. I think that’s something that needs to be taken into account here. It’s not a simple situation, you have to look at each annexation separately, I think we all agree on that. The idea that annexation is either all good or all bad is just too simplified. I think we have a good track record there and I’d like to see us continue.”
Ron Bireley: “I’m not against annexation at all. In this particular case that you’re discussing, those two projects are coming in, we should be able to control those projects. We know what’s coming so consequently if we know what’s coming we can control them. We should be charging them. We should be taxing them appropriately. One thing that I wish to point out, if someone wanted to locate to this area and put something undesirable up next to our border, they could do it through the county if it was zoned for that purpose. So consequently I think if anything, we want to expand just a little bit more so we control that and do not permit that to happen.”
Jennifer Allen. “I don’t know if you all know this but I’m one of the people that walked that annexation petition around last year. We need the town people to have more of a say and not be dictated by the local good old boys network and the county. I agree with Mr. Cascio, in his recent article in The Dispatch, when he said the town needs to have a proper discussion regarding growth. I quote him as saying it is true that we have water, the sewer, but we also have some power as the people of Berlin. If we are unable to do a public forum perhaps we need to mail out a survey or use SurveyMonkey to get the feel of community members. Annexation affects everybody in this community and this community should be able to make a discussion and decide for themselves what they would like to see happen to Berlin. I would also like to investigate what properties are available within the town that have yet to be developed because we have spent all this money to get them in and annexed, but I don’t see them building anything. I’d like to know what properties are sitting there undeveloped and what the plan is for when they’re going to be developed. We also need a full review of water and sewer capacity before we continue with anymore annexations. As Zack said we do not have the funds to bring in more water and more sewerage to this town at this point in time.”
Town Council Candidates
Tony Weeg: “One of my favorite topics because this is the one that everyone brings up to me first. With that said, my stance on annexations of the Town of Berlin are we need to put that question to the people when an annexation is requested. I believe a developer financed annexation referendum is the maybe one of the only referendums we should even have in our code so that annexations are truly a decision of the people. I can listen to everybody, I can listen to the people but if I can’t get to all of them and I don’t hear all of their opinions then I’m not doing a great job but a referendum may get a bigger swath of people. One of the biggest problems with that is getting people to show up to vote for those referendums. One of the things I know I’m capable of doing is getting interest, keeping interest and using the various mediums we have to get people to vote. I look forward to this election being one of the highest turnouts because of all these great people. I think that same fervor is going to happen with annexation referendums. So for me, growth needs to be sustainable and annexations should be townspeople referendums not the choice of the majority of the council.”
Jay Knerr: “Growth in any community takes smart planning. We need to decide as a community do we want to annex more land or do we want to advocate for more infill development within the properties that are already located within our town limits. Any annexation considered should be on a case-by-case measure. It has to make sense for the Town of Berlin and not just because a developer wants it. So we need to be careful about it, we need to be smart about it and we need to poll the citizens of berlin and ask them what would they like to see the future of our town become. We need to explain annexation, we need to explain the cost of growth. From there we can make calculated smart decisions. I do not believe it should go to referendum. That’s why we’re elected. But we can take the people’s opinions into consideration and plan for the future for sure.”
Shaneka Nichols: “Growth and annexation. Growth is inevitable. Growth is going to happen. Annexation I feel needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Growth I feel should start within. I think that before we, I know it should be on a case by case basis annexation, but before we look into allowing the growth on the outskirts of town there’s plenty of areas within town we should look at exploring first. But I think that listening to the community, a lot of people within the community are questioning annexation. Reasons for, what does that mean for them as citizens of the town as things are being annexed in, how that’s going to affect us as a whole in the future. Taking those things into consideration should definitely be a part of the decision making when it comes to further annexation.”
Daniel Packey: “For the last couple years, the population’s been growing about 1%. So we have a little bit of time. I think that when you talk about annexation I agree with everybody else that if it’s going to affect property values of the city’s residents, the town’s residents, that they have a say in it. I think that if you’re talking about commercial annexation, annexation for commercial properties, that those properties that are brought in should have a consistent theme with the rest of the town. You don’t want to just have a sprawl of less visibly desirable commercial buildings out there that destroys the value in town. Right things right places. Take a calm measured approach looking at it case by case. Not just a blanket to allow anything in. If you talk about residential growth in terms of housing we need to think about the attractiveness of single family units versus apartment buildings. I think we should treat those two things different.”
Jack Orris: “I believe this is a time of growing pains, for a small town coming into its own in the 21st century. Yes we absolutely do need to address growth but, number one, not at the expense of our charm. The comprehensive plan, it’s a living document. And that’s why we should really look at it annually. Maybe not a full overhaul but we should be willing to accept constructive review anytime from any resident or members of the council. As we approach the next review that’s coming up I think we should take another look at what we have, where are opportunities for reasonable and responsible growth, and how do we want our town to look moving forward. I think it’s important to point out here that some folks might not be aware that there’s really two opportunities to see what’s going on with potential growth. The planning commission and of course the mayor and council meetings during public hearings. Sometimes I get the feeling people think that the mayor and council public hearing is the only place that it’s talked about and that’s not necessarily true it’s at the planning commission. But that kind of ties back in with communication. I mentioned earlier that I want to make sure I can, the best that I can, make everyone aware of the meetings, the annexation proposals and growth.”