Citizens Weigh In On Heron Park Proposals

Citizens Weigh In On Heron Park Proposals
Heron park gillis

BERLIN – Residents shared mixed opinions regarding proposals submitted for Heron Park this week.

Residents who aren’t ready to sell park property, others who favored the commercial proposal submitted and even the two developers who provided bids spoke to the Berlin Town Council during a special meeting Monday. Mayor Zack Tyndall said the issue would be revisited in late March and urged citizens to weigh in before then.

“All of us are accessible,” he said. “Please take some time to let us know how you feel, what points you think need to be adjusted or things you would like to see. We do need to settle in on some kind of decision as it relates to Heron Park. I don’t think it’s right to string any of the entities along …”

The Town of Berlin received two bids for the disposition and development of Heron Park. Gillis Gilkerson (GGI) presented plans for commercial development. The company would give the town $1.5 million and two acres for an amphitheater in exchange for parcels 57, 410 and 191. Natelli Communities presented plans for 78 single family homes and some commercial space. It would give the town $1.6 million and five parcels near Stephen Decatur Park.

Town staff graded the proposals, giving Natelli a score of 100 and Gillis Gilkerson a score of 90.


A rendering of Gillis Gilkerson’s proposed Berlin Depot development at Heron Park. Submitted image.

“From our opinion both had merits,” Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood said. “We felt very strongly that the monetary aspect of it was kind of the black and white, $1.6 million versus $1.5 million … The use and redevelopment of the property, that went back and forth amongst us.”

At Monday’s meeting, the roomful of citizens in attendance were invited to share their thoughts on the proposals. Resident Gina Velong said she had concerns about both. She pointed out that residential development had a substantial impact on town infrastructure and said she was concerned about the details of the Gillis proposal.

“They said a lot of the buzz words we want to hear but none of it was put concretely,” she said.

Resident Tony Weeg praised Gillis Gilkerson’s other projects in the region and said he thought the Gillis project had the right spirit. He also praised the developer’s plan to give the town two acres back for an amphitheater.

“The other proposal has considerations for a development that is so unfitting for the area that I question the sincerity of the submission…,” he said. “The GGI plan, not the Natelli plan, is best for Berlin in that space.”

Resident Ann Hillyer said she was disappointed the town was pursuing the sale of portions of the park when the advisory committee had put so much effort into exploring options for the property.

She said that if the town did sell the property, she firmly supported the Gillis Gilkerson proposal.

“I think they include amenities and park land for the town residents to use,” she said. “I don’t think they put the burdens on the infrastructure the other project does and they’re not charging the town for the demolition.”

Like Hillyer, resident Matt Stoehr expressed concern about the condition in the Natelli proposal that leaves the town paying for demolition costs at the property beyond the $500,000 covered by the strategic demolition grant the town received. He added that if the town did pursue some sort of large project, something that could be considered was a special tax district.

“That money is used to fund infrastructure in that area,” he said.

Residents Kate Patton and Joan Maloof, both members of the now disbanded park advisory committee, expressed hesitation about selling the property. Patton cited the stormwater, traffic and environmental impacts development would have.

“We need to be careful we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she said. “I have to ask if either of these proposals are what we want.”

Resident Ron Cascio, a member of the town’s planning commission, said he appreciated aspects of both proposals but didn’t think the town should act yet.

“I don’t believe on this site either one of them do a service to the possibilities there,” he said, adding that he felt both undervalued the property.

Resident Sara Hambury said she preferred the Gillis Gilkerson proposal and noted that the school system couldn’t handle the influx that would come with 78 new homes.

Eric Fiori, who owns property near Heron Park, questioned the debt currently associated with the park. When staff confirmed that there was $2.4 million in debt associated with the entire park property, he said it had to be addressed. He urged officials to take the Gillis Gilkerson offer.

“I don’t think we could pick a better partner,” he said. “At some point we have to quit kicking the can down the road.”

Other residents talked about the lack of sidewalks in the vicinity of Heron Park.
Gillis Gilkerson’s Palmer Gillis and Natelli Communities’ Tom Natelli also spoke to elected officials. Gillis said both proposals had merit and that the community would have to make a choice. Natelli noted that his company had experience in Ocean City and Sussex County. He said the project proposed was conceptual at this point.

“It’s not set in stone,” he said. “We’re here to get feedback.”

When asked about the pricing of the homes proposed, Natelli said it would depend on market conditions.


A rendering of the residential project Natelli Communities proposed for a portion of Heron Park.

Gillis said his family lived in the Berlin area and was excited take part in the development of Heron Park.

“We’re going to put our heart and soul in it,” he said.

Tyndall thanked residents for sharing their input and said he was pleased the town had gotten high quality proposals from two professional companies.

Councilman Troy Purnell said the town needed a new appraisal on the park property now that it had offers in hand. His peers agreed. Councilman Jack Orris said he wanted to ensure the process kept moving, however.

“I would like to if we can, put some sort of timeline on this,” he said.

While appraisals typically take six to eight weeks, Tyndall said he was optimistic the town’s last appraisals could simply be brought current and wouldn’t take that long. He suggested the council resume discussion of the proposals at the second meeting in March.

“It gives us time to digest the information that was here this evening, review this more in depth,” he said.

The council voted 4-0, with Councilman Dean Burrell absent, to get an updated appraisal of the property. Councilman Jay Knerr noted that even if the town did sell a portion of the park for $1.5 or $1.6 million, that would not cover the park’s entire debt. He added that storage buildings currently in use by the town would be lost with the sale and have to be rebuilt elsewhere at a cost of potentially $400,000.

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.