BERLIN – The Berlin Planning Commission voted 5-1 not to support a request to rezone commercial property near the intersection of routes 818 and 50.
The commission will forward a request to rezone 25 acres of commercial property on to the Berlin Town Council with an unfavorable recommendation. The rezoning has been proposed to allow for a 176-unit townhouse development on the site.
Several citizens and the owner of a local airplane business voiced opposition to the rezoning.
“I don’t want my head on a pike for voting yes to this,” commission member Ron Cascio said.
In October, developer Chris Carbaugh approached the commission to share plans for a 176-unit townhouse development on 25 acres at Route 818’s intersection with Route 50 westbound. He said in order for the project to move forward, he was seeking a rezoning of the land to R-4 residential. The property’s zoning designation was changed in 2020 from industrial to commercial at Carbaugh’s request.
At this week’s public hearing on the rezoning proposal, which was held virtually, Carbaugh told the commission he was proposing a mixed-use development that would feature commercial closest to Route 818 and residential behind it.
“This conceptual site plan illustrates 176 townhomes,” he said. “It also incorporates several community amenities including a clubhouse, community pool and park.”
Mark Cropper, Carbaugh’s attorney, told the commission the rezoning was being proposed based on a mistake in the current zoning. He referenced the county’s comprehensive land use plan, which indicates there is too much commercial property in the area. He said there had been even more added since the plan was written in 2009 and that if Berlin officials had been aware of that they wouldn’t have approved the rezoning to commercial in 2020.
Carbaugh said the project would bring projected yearly revenue of $1.45 million to the town (considering taxes, electric revenue, water revenue and wastewater revenue) and would bring more than $3 million in impact fees to the town.
“This project has the potential financial benefit in the first year of development to produce $5 million for the Town of Berlin,” Carbaugh said.
More than a dozen residents submitted opposition to the proposal. Some cited the strain it would put on the town’s resources while others said they didn’t want more growth. Others expressed concern about traffic safety at the intersection.
“This site has been rezoned many times due to a ‘zoning mistake,’” resident Barb Stack said in her submitted comments. “Why is this a recurring mistake? The truth is the owner has not found a suitable use for the property. This is not the town’s burden.”
The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) also submitted concerns regarding the proposed development’s proximity to Bunting’s Airport.
“The proximity to Bunting’s Airport, an MDOT MAA licensed commercial-use landing facility, is of paramount concern,” a letter from Ashish Solanki, director of the Office of Regional Aviation Assistance, reads. “Residential communities in close proximity to aircraft activity invites negative public perception of noise/vibrations, nuisance complaints and environmental complaints. Additionally, low flying aircraft perform aerial applications on farm communities in the area. Any densely developed community in the area would be dangerous to both the piloted aircraft and residences of the community.”
Cropper said the property Carbaugh wanted to build on had been zoned R-3 residential when Bunting established his airport in 1980. He pointed out the Ocean City Airport was surrounded by residential development. He added that the MAA didn’t dictate zoning.
Bunting Airport’s Robert Bunting and attorney Dirk Widdowson participated in Wednesday’s hearing to voice their opposition to the rezoning. Bunting said his planes — which are used for crop dusting as well as to fly advertising banners — are louder and fly lower than the planes at the Ocean City Airport. He said if a residential development was put in on the 25-acre site residents would complain and lawsuits would result.
“It’s a no win situation for everybody involved,” he said.
Widdowson said Carbaugh argued for commercial zoning in 2020 and less than two years later requested residential zoning.
“This is piecemeal or spot zoning at its best,” he said. “It should not be allowed.”
Cropper asked if Bunting would agree that Ocean City Airport was busier than his.
“I’ve had days I’ve been busier than Ocean City Airport with the number of flights I’ve had,” Bunting said. “I’ve had days where they’ve been busier than I have.”
“I’ll try it again,” Cropper said. “On average, in a year, the Ocean City Airport has many more flights in and out than you will ever have off your property. Would you agree or disagree?”
“Well that depends on how good a summer I have Mark,” Bunting replied, adding that on average an airport like Ocean City’s would have more flights.
Cropper said Ocean City Airport operated successfully despite its proximity to residential homes. Bunting said that when his property was too wet and he’d operated out of the Ocean City Airport, there had been complaints.
“The phone rang off the hook,” he said.
Residents Marie and Gina Velong both voiced opposition to the rezoning.
“There’s all kinds of reasons not to do this project but the biggest one is that’s a commercial area, it’s not a residential one,” Marie Velong said.
Cropper reiterated his belief that the 2020 rezoning of the subject property had been a mistake made because town officials weren’t aware of the surplus of commercially zoned land in the area. He said that while it was “almost humorous” that Bunting considered use of his airport to be as intense as use of the Ocean City Airport, some of the most valuable land in the county was nevertheless in proximity of the Ocean City Airport.
He added that his client was willing to accept a rezoning to R-3 residential, as that is what the land was zoned when Bunting built his airport.
Commission member Ron Cascio questioned why the proposed development was even being considered when there were likely jurisdictional wetlands on the property. Carbaugh said he was confident the land was buildable.
Cascio said he’d heard nothing but opposition to the project from citizens. He said the townhouses would increase traffic issues at the intersection and would push the town’s need to expand its wastewater treatment plant.
“I understand where the property owner wants to try to make some money with this, I would too, but not under the condition the townspeople of Berlin are going to be burdened by this project,” he said.
Commission member Pete Cosby said he didn’t want to see Route 50 turned into a commercial corridor like the one near Virginia Beach. He is disappointed by all of the commercial development leading into Ocean City and said he’d love to see the 25 acres stay a farm field.
“I think our best shot at trying to preserve some appearance of ag or more rural use is to orient ourselves toward a residential use of this property,” he said. “I don’t want to see outlet shops out here.”
Cosby said he didn’t like the townhouse proposal but that the commission could make changes when the project came for site plan review.
Commission member Austin Purnell recognized the shortage of housing in the area but said he didn’t like the townhouse proposal. He said there were also infill opportunities closer to the town center.
“I’d rather see single family over there,” he said. “How this is proposed, I’m not in favor of it.”
Commission member Matt Stoehr said the financial information presented by Carbaugh showed the town’s potential income from the project but didn’t address the costs to the town for things like public safety. He added that 176 townhouses on the property would be too dense.
“I’d like to see single family or a mixture like you see in Decatur Farms with a lower density,” he said.
Cosby said the issue wasn’t whether the commission liked the townhouse proposal but rather was it better for Berlin to have the property zoned commercial or residential.
Commission member Newt Chandler said that right now the commission had the power.
“We can’t tailor these rezonings to every developer’s whim,” he said, adding that 176 townhouses were too many for the property.
Cosby again spoke in favor of residential zoning.
“I’d rather see a moderate residential development than commercial sprawl,” he said, adding that a shopping center could come up with the current zoning.
Chandler said he’d rather see that than 176 townhouses crammed on 25 acres. He said if the property was rezoned the door would be open for multifamily units.
“You’re shoving 10 pounds of cow manure into a 5-pound bag,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen before.”
Chris Denny, chair of the commission, spoke in favor of keeping the property commercial. He said Bunting’s Airport had been established in 1980.
“He was there first,” Denny said.
The commission voted 5-1, with Cosby opposed, to give the rezoning an unfavorable recommendation.