Blunt Talk On Growth, Personal Observations Dominate Berlin Planning Commission Meeting

Blunt Talk On Growth, Personal Observations Dominate Berlin Planning Commission Meeting
An aerial view of Berlin is pictured. File Photo

BERLIN – Talk of government overreach and unnecessary law dominated a Berlin Planning Commission discussion of a new resilience element for the town’s comprehensive plan.

The commission met Wednesday to review a resilience element proposed as an addition to the town’s comprehensive plan. The majority of the commission expressed concern with the extensive document drafted by the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center.

“If our local philosophy is we’re anti-regulation and nonsensical stuff, and this is not a necessity, why go there?” commission member Pete Cosby said. “Why do we want to break ground in this zone of opening doors for more regulation?”

The commission was tasked with reviewing an executive summary of the extensive resilience element. Though Cosby initially began proposing text changes, commission member Newt Chandler suggested scrapping the entire resilience document.

“It looks like more regulation, more taxation, upon the citizens of the town,” he said. “Things we can’t afford and don’t need.”

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Chris Denny, chair of the commission, agreed.

“It’s duplication,” he said. “All kinds of stuff we’re doing anyway.”

Cosby said that while thinking about resilience wasn’t a bad idea, he agreed that the document wasn’t needed because much of what was in the element was common sense.

“I’d just as soon not have all these words everywhere and too much law,” said Cosby, an attorney.

Planning Director Dave Engelhart said the element had been drafted by the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center with grant money the town had received. He discussed the concept of resilience.

“It should be part of your thinking going forward to have money set aside in your budget to prepare…,” he said. “Resilience is adapting to whatever comes along.”

Chandler said if the town spent its money wisely it would have funds set aside for emergencies.

“We don’t need a multi-page document to accomplish that,” he said. “Our city council should be doing that anyway.”

Chandler said that if the resilience element was added to the comprehensive plan, it, like the rest of the plan, could be quoted by lawyers as documentation supporting certain projects in town.

“They’ll be pointing to this,” he said.

Commission member Matt Stoehr reminded his peers that while they were arguing over the executive summary, the entire resilience element was linked to it.

Denny said the document was just too far reaching. He pointed out that it addressed things like increasing tree canopy.

“Look at California,” he said. “It’s on fire because of their increased urban tree canopy and they’re bringing that crap here.”

Commission member D.J. Lockwood said that while the entire element was too much, he supported the idea of some kind of resilience element.

“Resilience is about protecting what you have,” he said. “Looking forward and trying to see what could possibly happen and being ready.”

He added that something like exploring allowing golf carts could be a little thing the town could do.

“You don’t have to make mandates you just make suggestions to save yourself,” he said. “We know the world’s changing. It’s small things to look out for yourself. That’s the resilience I see, not doing a bunch of crazy stuff.”

Chandler agreed but said that the town was already doing just that.

“We tackle those kinds of problems, as does the council,” he said. “We don’t need a multi-page document of people across the bridge telling us how to run our deal here.”

Commission member Ron Cascio said the element was not a mandate and said he didn’t understand the fear the rest of the commission had of it.

“If you put it in the comprehensive plan it means you agree to it,” Chandler interjected. “It also means you should follow it.”

Cascio said the final decision on the resilience element was up to the town council.

“They’re going to do what they want to do no matter what we say,” he said.

Stoehr encouraged the public to review both the resilience element and the executive summary.

“They need to understand if they’re getting this (the summary) they’re getting this(the entire plan),” he said. “That is to me the scary part of this whole process.”

Engelhart acknowledged that the planning commission already reviewed much of what was in the resilience element, such as stormwater, density and trees, but added that the element was just a guidance document, not a mandate.

“It’s aspirational,” he said.

Chandler maintained that it was unnecessary.

“If you give a government official a document that says you should spend money on this guess what, they’re going to spend money on it,” he said. “That’s just their nature. We don’t need any more regulation, we don’t need any more taxes, we don’t need to be encumbered by things we shouldn’t have bought to start with. We’re out of money now. We don’t need people across the bridge telling us what we have to do.”

Cosby, a lawyer, said he referenced comprehensive plans in his work all the time. He said while the plan was not law it was a persuasive directive that was useful when making a case for something. He said the town should set a precedent.

“We don’t need more law we need more precise law stated more concisely,” he said.

As the conversation turned to the town’s comprehensive plan as a whole, Cosby said he thought Berlin’s was a good one. Cascio said he thought the town needed to communicate with Worcester County to ensure agreement on growth areas. He added that he wanted to hear from the public as well.

“Since we represent those people we should hear from them,” he said.

Denny said the meeting was open and the public was not in attendance. He compared the situation to the multiple objections filed a couple weeks ago regarding the appointment of Austin Purnell to the commission.

“I don’t want to hear how they don’t have access to the information,” he said. “They had plenty of information about Mr. Purnell down here.”

Cascio said they likely didn’t realize it was time to come to the meeting to weigh in.

“They can sit there and fire off snotty little things about him online all the time but they can’t bring their ass in here?” Denny said, adding that he’d been on the commission for 20 years. “The participation out here is pretty much nil.”

Chandler, another longtime commission member, disagreed and said he was approached by people regarding planning commission matters.

“Certainly when you walk around town and people know you’re on the planning commission they certainly voice their opinion,” he said. “I’m hearing a lot of people don’t want any more residential annexations, especially these high-density projects. They’re aware.”

Going back to the comprehensive plan, commission members agreed that protecting the town’s quality of life was critical. they again stressed the importance of working with the county to come to an agreement on growth areas at the town’s borders. Cascio and Cosby also talked about the possibility of buying and transferring development rights to ensure green space.

“We have to figure out what determines that quality of life and how do we protect it for ourselves and our children,” Cascio said. “Not the people who want to come here.”

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.