BERLIN – Town officials want to know what the public thinks about a townhouse development proposed in the area of routes 818 and 50.
A developer met with the Berlin Planning Commission this week to talk about plans for a 176-unit townhouse community at the northwest intersection of Route 818 and Route 50 westbound. Commission members said they wanted to hear from the community before weighing in on the project.
“Is this what the town wants?” commission member Ron Cascio said. “That’s the question.”
Developer Chris Carbaugh and attorney Mark Cropper met with the commission Wednesday to review the latest proposal for 24 acres along Route 50 westbound. The land was rezoned last year, at Carbaugh’s request, from industrial to B-2 business. Now, however, Carbaugh wants to have it rezoned to R-4 residential. He wants to see the site developed with a 176-unit townhouse community. Carbaugh said the pandemic affected the commercial plans for the property.
“A lot of those users put their growth plans on hold,” he said. “Since that time there’s been substantial interest in residential development in town of Berlin so we wanted to go back and try to see if there was a way to incorporate the residential into this project and create more of a mixed use.”
Carbaugh said there would be commercial space on the corner and then townhouses on the substantial back section of property.
“This is a project the development group is looking to go as quickly as they can, with the market as good as it is,” he said. “You can’t get these built fast enough. We’d like to see what we could do to keep the project moving forward.”
Cascio pointed out that zoning changes have to be based on a change in the neighborhood or a mistake. Cropper indicated this rezoning would be based on a mistake.
Carbaugh said a mixed-use development like what would be allowed in B-2 didn’t work with the current market.
“A downzoning to allow a fee simple product is what there’s the most interest in developing on the property,” he said.
At Cascio’s concern regarding the project’s density, Carbaugh said 40% of the project would be open space.
“It’s planned to accommodate a good density,” he said. “Some future growth for the town but it has significant open space, amenities, to be a nice project for the town to give people options to move into the town.”
Planning Director Dave Engelhart suggested the commission consider the impact of the potential development on the town. He said there would be significant real estate taxes coming to the town once the project was complete. The town would also receive EDU (equivalent dwelling unit) fees for sewer capacity and impact fees.
Commission member Matt Stoehr asked if those fees outweighed the increased costs that came with more residential development.
Cropper said the town had plenty of water and sewer capacity to sell and that the developer would have to pay the infrastructure costs associated with extending water and sewer to the site. Carbaugh echoed his comments.
“The town has already extended water and sewer to this property that’s not being utilized right now,” he said. “So you made a substantial investment in getting infrastructure out here for development yet nobody’s utilizing that.”
As far as sewer capacity, Engelhart said that wouldn’t be a problem because the town’s wastewater treatment plant had been designed for future expansion.
“Berlin doesn’t really have a problem with any of the newer development paying for itself,” he said.
According to Engelhart, the town’s costs came when new development couldn’t be served by the town’s aging infrastructure. When there was new development on Gay Street a few years ago, for example, the town had to upgrade water lines so they’d be able to serve the sprinkler systems in the new building.
He added that if the townhouses sold for around $350,000, the town would receive $466,000 in real estate taxes each year. He said EDU fees for the development would be nearly $3 million and impact fees would be roughly $350,000.
“I think it makes a significant impact on the town but not in a negative way,” he said. “That’s the way I’m thinking about it.”
Commission member Austin Purnell pointed out that in addition to the direct financial impact, new homes in the area would lead to more spending in local shops and restaurants.
“It’s going to help support that as well.,” he said.
When Stoehr asked whether the development could prompt a stoplight at the Route 50 and Route 818 intersection, Engelhart said the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) did not have plans for one.
“We have had meetings with SHA and they have said there will never be a red light there,” he said.
Chris Denny, chairman of the commission, said he worried that Route 50—which initially bypassed dense developed areas—was becoming too congested. He said he worried development there would bring too many people to the area.
“It’s going to be New Jersey and New York plates,” he said.
Carbaugh argued that people who already lived in the area needed places to live. He said he had engineers working for him that were leaving Oceans East because rent kept increasing.
“The rents are going up every year to where my employees can’t afford it,” he said. “They could get a mortgage and it’d be cheaper… This is a perfect product. I think that’s what Berlin’s kind of about, for those local people to have a place to be. This I believe would fit that bill.”
Cropper said Worcester County was deficient in new home inventory.
“There’s nothing out there,” he said. “I guess the question for this planning commission and the mayor and council, is if there is going to be somewhere that gets developed to address that need, do you want it to be here?”
He added that there was a larger need for residential property than commercial, as evidenced by the fact that there were still vacancies near Home Depot.
“Because we can’t find anything in Berlin we’re finding out builders are skipping Berlin and have now started looking at Snow Hill and at Pocomoke and even further south,” Carbaugh said. “And they’ve even started doing small projects because we can’t get anything going here in Berlin. Do we want to miss that opportunity?”
Commission member Newt Chandler said there was a need for housing but questioned the density of the proposed development.
“I don’t think it’s a bad location for it but it’s a lot of people,” he said.
Commission member Pete Cosby said growth was a major issue and that officials needed to figure out how to ensure Berlin remained “the jewel” it is now. He believes the town should find a way to purchase development rights to limit growth. As far as Carbaugh’s project, however, Cosby said that like Chandler he thought the density was a bit much.
“Do something to make it cool, make it different,” he said.
Cosby said he liked the fact that the townhouses were not rentals but said the commission wouldn’t have any way to prevent the developer from changing it to rentals in the future.
“That happens time and time again,” he said.
He said he wanted to hear from residents regarding the proposal and encouraged them to share their views with local officials in the coming weeks.
“I’d like to see the town folks have an opportunity to weigh in on this,” he said.