(Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, I am a member of the Berlin Mayor and Council. Since being elected last October, I have not expressed any opinions on Berlin matters in this space. A decision this week requires an exception.)
This week’s 3-2 vote by the Berlin Town Council was a mistake. The vote means the town will no longer proceed with selling the Heron Park parcel containing the dilapidated buildings at the former chicken plant. The council majority members who voted against moving forward with a sale contract with Coastal Venture Properties – the chosen developer for the park dating back to May 2022 – felt it was a bad deal for the town. The three council members expressed concerns over the proposed project, which created based on the town’s Request For Proposal stipulations.
I disagree with the prevailing position. Now, with the slim majority of the council’s will, the town will start over the entire process of what to do with the former chicken plant property turned park. A committee may be formed in the future to continue the discussion.
I would like to explain my position of support for selling parcel 57. The town previously had the property appraised with a residential zoning last year. The property was appraised at $800,000. The council voted 4-1 last month – I opposed – to have the property reappraised at B-2 (commercial), and the property’s value was found to be $1.2 million. The “extraordinary assumption” listed in the appraisal was the property would be cleared. This was an assumption that’s extraordinary considering there’s 60,000 square feet of buildings in various states on the nine-acre site.
When asked Monday by Councilman Jack Orris, who also opposed abandoning the sale process, Coastal Venture Properties agreed in principle to the $1.2 million sale price in exchange for all deed restrictions being lifted. The B-2 zoning allows mixed-use development, which is a wise redevelopment track. I was prepared to admit an error to opposing the commercial reappraisal last month since it just increased the sale price by $400,000, from $800,000 to $1.2 million. It turned out I was right to oppose because the votes were never there to sell the property.
One of the major hangups this week was the transfer of 36 sewer EDUs with the sale. Property sales – residential and commercial — carry the EDUs through the transactions. Why would this sale be any different? The contract between the developer and the town was going to stipulate unused EDUs would be returned to the town after 24 months. The council majority wanted the sewer EDU values (approximately $440,000 in total) included in the sale, though the developer would have to pay for the water EDUs (about $160,000), leaving a net of about $280,000 in total EDU value. Additionally, the town has been paying about $13,000 in ready-to-serve fees annually since 2016. I find selling the property and removing the inherent risk associated with this eyesore property, especially what lies under ground, to be worth the impact of the EDUs. The EDU discourse could have been part of the contract talk.
Instead, the council majority ended the process. The town will not be selling the parcel at this time, and it will sit as an eyesore for months to come. It could be years before any real improvement is seen. I see more risk with the Town of Berlin owning this property than reward.
The town’s focus immediately turns to utilizing the $500,000 strategic demolition grant – a blessing from the state and a result of solid efforts from town staff. As someone who has worked across the street from this eyesore for almost 30 years, I look forward to seeing major changes even if it’s a slower process than envisioned. The demolition effort is going to be tricky and expensive. The town’s own internal estimate has total demolition of the site coming in north of $1 million. Therefore, we know the entire site will not be cleared and town funding may be needed to even render the property safe after some wrecking activity. I will not vote for using any of the town’s reserve funds to clear the site after the demolition grant is used. The town already pays about $200,000 in annual debt service from the 2016 property purchase. If the property transaction was permitted to move forward, the developer was going to use the demo grant and personal funding to clear the site to match his redevelopment project. After the grant was utilized, the developer said last night he had budgeted an additional $500,000 for preparing for the site for redevelopment.
I was comfortable with selling the property because of the risk and the knowledge and experience the developer has refurbishing old buildings into operable businesses. The developer cares for Berlin and knows many of our business owners and citizens. He would be accountable for the finished product and the impact on our overall town. He understands the concerns from the downtown business community about competing operations.
Hindsight may prove my pro-sale position – one shared by Mayor Zack Tyndall and Councilman Jack Orris — wrong. I fear this decision could have major financial ramifications for the town. The better direction for the future of the town and the parcel was to proceed with selling parcel 57, allowing the demo grant to move ahead with the developer picking up the remaining expenses. While that process was playing out, the town could evaluate the remaining parcels, determine where the skate park should be located, how a new public works campus could take shape on the land and continue to hear from citizens as far as what they would like to be included through a committee process.