Berlin annexes 120 acres in tense 3-2 vote

In June 2013, the Rinnier Development Company bought 120 acres of land across from Stephen Decatur High School with a plan to turn the parcel into a rental apartment complex with commercial uses on the eastern edge of Berlin.

Berlin Councilmember Lisa Hall opposed the annexation proposed during Monday’s public hearing. Councilmember Elroy Brittingham, center, and Mayor Gee Williams spoke in favor of the measure. [JOSH DAVIS/PHOTO]
On Monday, nearly two years later, the Berlin Town Council voted to annex the property, a move that will enable the project to move into the official planning phase.

The annexation, however, did not happen without a fight that ended with a 3-2 vote in favor of the development and annexation.

The chief concerns of opponents were the long-range scope of the project and what they saw as possible ripple effects – increased traffic and demand on infrastructure and services – of major growth on the eastern perimeter of the town.

Monday’s hearing was the second of two to address the rezoning of the Seahawk Road parcel from agricultural to general residential (R4). Because the property fell under the county’s zoning jurisdiction before Berlin annexed it, Rinnier sought and received the rezoning from the Worcester County Commissioners on Feb.19 going into the proceedings with the town.

Attorney Mark Cropper, who represented Rinnier, told the county then and reminded the council Monday that the land is in a designated growth area in Berlin’s comprehensive plan.

Cropper also said Rinnier representatives met with the mayor and members of the Berlin council, the Worcester County Commissioners and members of the Board of Education after the company acquired the property.

“As a result of those meetings, numerous changes have been made to the proposal,” Cropper said. “It is significantly different today than initially proposed.

“It is only residential development of apartments being proposed,” Cropper added. “There is no commercial component to the project at this time.”

The first phase of the project, according to Blair Rinnier, would feature 144 garden-type apartments built in a Victorian style that reflects the architecture of Berlin.

The grounds would be professionally landscaped and irrigated, include a multi-use clubhouse, environmental considerations and pedestrian and “bike-able” connectivity, Rinnier said.

Over a 15-year period, the project would grow to include 785 apartments, none of which would be low income or subsidized.

“With this development being located here, close to U.S. 50, it will not adversely impact the historical downtown Berlin, but it still will provide new quality housing and an economic engine to enhance the town and county’s economy and job growth,” Rinnier said.

Based on a 2013 State of Maryland survey, Rinnier estimated 65 percent of residents in the development would be “people who currently live in the area,” with the majority being “singles living alone or with roommates,” likely “teachers, police officers, health care providers and employees of local area businesses.”

“One of the more important things about this community … is all the residents are thoroughly screened by one of the nation’s most comprehensive screening services to prevent residents with criminal history, sexual offenders or any terrorist activity,” Rinnier said. “It’s taken very seriously to assure that the residents who live in our communities are good neighbors to each other and to the larger surrounding community.”

Two dozen of the apartments in phase one would be designed for seniors, with elevators and walk-in showers and bathtubs, Rinnier said. Additional senior-friendly apartments would be based on demand.

Impact and EDU fees would generate $2.3 million in income for the town during phase one, Rinnier said, growing to $12.5 million after all phases.

A fiscal impact analysis showed a positive financial impact of $37,000 annually during phase one, according to Rinnier.

“The community provides an economic contribution to the town,” Rinnier said. “One of the things we heard about in the strategic meetings again and again was a wish list of things the community wants to see happen, whether it was a skate park or more open space, or fixing the sidewalk or streetlights. All those things take money to do. This property can be part of the answer to provide that funding to Berlin.”

Rinnier estimated the first phase would add “less than two-tenths of one percent” to the total school population in Worcester County, adding private trash and recycling services would not affect the town’s sanitation department, and streets would be maintained by the developer.

Addressing a public comment from Pedestrian Safety Committee Chair Patricia Dufendach, Rinnier said sidewalks in the development would not connect to the downtown area directly.

“He’s not allowed to,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “So far, property owners between where the town limits are and Seahawk [Road] are at this time do not wish [to allow sidewalks]. But that might happen some day. Our policy is we’ve never taken somebody to task and said, ‘You’ve got to be annexed come hell or high water.’”

Williams stressed that he hoped sidewalks would be possible in the future.

Berlin resident Gregory Purnell was concerned about the possibility of increased traffic on Flower Street. Cropper said the entrance of the development would be configured to allow only right turns out and left turns in from Seahawk Road, pulling traffic away from Flower Street.

“What it does is it forces all the traffic to Route 50,” Cropper said.

Ron Casio, a member of the Berlin Planning Commission, asked if people wouldn’t realize they could travel up to the high school parking lot, turn around and then head down to Flower Street.

“I think people could do it. They may do it a couple times,” Cropper said. “What you’ll find is your travel patterns … [are] going to go out to Route 50 and go where they’re going, not cut through a parking lot and go backwards.”

Opposing the annexation, however, were At Large Council member Thom Gulyas and Council member Lisa Hall.

Gulyas worried about the potential impact the development would have on town infrastructure.

Cropper replied that the annexation agreement only covered the first 144 units, which would not strain town services.

“[Rinnier] has to appear before the planning commission to get site plan approval for the second phase,” Cropper added. “Part of that would include a necessary public works agreement.

“What we’re here for this evening is for the mayor and council to decide whether it wants to annex this property into the town zoned R4,” Cropper added.

Rinnier would have to pay for necessary upgrades to infrastructure doing future phases, according to Cropper.

“You and I both know [Rinnier] is not going to look at this just piecemeal,” Cropper said. “When he’s looking at the infrastructure for the [first] 144 he’s going to be looking at phase two and phase three.”

Hall worried the development could resemble the Glen Riddle neighborhood “with all the pipes out there for 25 years.”

“I don’t like that undeveloped developer look,” she said.

“When I have potential residents come in there, it’s got to look great,” Rinnier said. “That’s why we spend the money on the irrigation and the landscaping, so when you come in there it looks like home. That’s what I want people to see. I want it to be welcoming and inviting.”

Hall said she preferred previous plans for the site that included commercial development, and worried traffic restrictions would alienate future residents.

“I can’t picture … living there and coming out of the development with those J-channels restricting where you go,” Hall said. “You’re asking us to annex a piece of property into this town. You’re asking us to call them residents of Berlin. We’re going to be collecting those taxes. We’re going to be collecting this infrastructure with the EDUs, etc. But yes, don’t go that way. Go out to the traffic. I just have a problem with that.”

Cropper said meetings with residents made it apparent they would not support the development if it significantly increased traffic on Flower Street.

“We made the commitment to the residents … if that was going to change at all through the process, we had to go back to the residents and explain how or why,” he said. “That’s a commitment we made in the beginning that’s followed through to today.”

Cropper again underscored the fact that the property was located inside the designated growth area in the town’s comprehensive plan.

“It’s not a perfect world, but because this is a designated growth area … the town would get a benefit of development on this property without being right [in] downtown Berlin,” Cropper said.

Gulyas argued that full build-out could add several thousand residents, all which would have a voice in future town planning.

“What’s to stop those 2,000 from coming into this mayor and council 10 years from now and saying, ‘I don’t like the way that turns. We need that turned left now. We want to come out and we want to turn left. What’s to stop them from doing that?” he said.

“The mayor and council,” Cropper said. “There is not an agreement in the world … that you can guarantee what’s going to happen 20 or 30 years from now.”

Council member Elroy Brittingham, a resident of Flower Street, defended the annexation.

“I sit here probably the longest [serving] person on the council,” he said. “Who thought we would have sidewalks on Flower Street? Change is going to happen.

“This is the best project that’s been here for that piece of land,” Brittingham continued. “We’ve looked at a lot of different concepts trying to build that land out into commercial apartments, family homes. This is the best one.”

Resident Gabe Purnell argued that the town invited growth by going after the ‘Coolest Small Town’ designation last year.

“We opened ourselves up when we did that,” he said. “People want them to like the place, they want to come to live. We’ve got all this land out here out in the country. To me that’s one of our greatest assets. And if that property will not affect Berlin downtown, to me that’s a beauty. If we say no to this project, then what are we going to say yes to?”

Purnell also said Rinnier has shown a willingness to “meet with anybody, anytime.”

“I know him,” he said. “He’s met with me. He’s come, he said, ‘Man, what do you see?’ I’ve seen developers come in this room here over the years that wouldn’t give me the time of the day … I say we need to seize this opportunity.”

Purnell suggested the development could help ease the tax burden in Berlin, help struggling seniors and invite business.

“Nothing is going to be perfect in this world,” Purnell said. “Tell me what’s perfect? Nothing.”

“You stole my words,” District 1 Councilmember Troy Purnell said. “I can’t ask for a better group to come to town.

Gulyas maintained that he did not agree with the project as it was currently drawn.

“I am the at-large representative for this town, so I have to talk to everybody and there are folks who are not in this room this evening that are not being represented except through my voice that I have spoken to that are totally against that,” he said. “People are concerned about growth, they’re concerned about traffic, they’re concerned about losing the small town feel, they’re concerned about sprawl.

“If you dump a hundred kids out there in a cornfield … that puts a burden of about $1.7 million on Worcester County Board of Ed,” Gulyas continued. “They’re already $22 million upside down. Where is it coming to come from? It’s going to come from me, it’s going to from the individuals who live out in the county, it’s going to from everybody who lives in town. Those are real things we have to deal with.”

District 4 Councilmember Dean Burrell agreed there were real concerns surrounding the annexation.

“All of us sitting here know [those concerns] are true, but we have to do the best we can do today,” he said. “This project, as I see it, as long as it’s not impacting the traffic on Flower Street today, well, that is the best I can do today.

“The future is not promised to any one of us, and it’s incumbent upon us to do the best we can today. I think it’s a good project, and I think this project is one of the best we can do today,” Burrell said.

Williams said there were people in Berlin “who would love to see this community not change one iota.”

“If we just stop growth, guess what will happen? Everything will become so expensive I know I’ll have to leave. I imagine most of the people in this room would,” he said. “We have to find that balance the best way we can.”

Williams argued that the development would help raise money for the number of public projects touted during the recent strategic planning sessions and “help maintain quality of life with affordability.”

“Quite frankly, I hope the whole town experiences some growth in all these different areas so that we can become the community that we just were asked to be,” he said. “If we just cut off the growth, forget it.”

Councilmember Purnell made the motion to approve the annexation and rezone the property R4. Hall and Gulyas opposed.

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