By Ally Lanasa, Staff Writer
(Aug. 20, 2020) The Berlin Planning Commission reviewed a concept plan to develop a luxury apartment community at Arden Center on North Main Street in walking distance to the Berlin Town Center.
Attorney Joseph Moore and John Salm, the engineer and co-owner of the 7.21-acre property on the east side of Route 818, sought comments on a plan for an apartment community to be called Victorian Oaks Manor.
Moore said the intent is to have a mixed-use development for primarily residential uses.
According to the concept, Victorian Oaks Manor would be a residential planned unit development (PUD) and have 80 flat-style residences, ranging from 1-bedroom to 3-bedroom. All the rental residences will be served by interior elevators.
Salm said the community will also feature a dog park, a swimming pool and a children’s play area. In addition, a separate access off Route 818 would be created.
“I think there’s a real, real need for quality multi-family housing in close proximity to the center of town,” Salm said. “We would take a portion of this property that is on the north side of the power lines, and I’ve gone ahead and I’ve laid out two multi-family buildings for 80 units.”
The community would have 160 parking stalls for an average of two cars per unit.
“I’ve worked it out so about 40 percent are going to be available in garages, and the other 60 percent are going to be available outside,” Salm said.
Salm also emphasized that the project will cultivate connectivity between North Main Street and downtown, saying he plans to have a shared use path in front of the property.
The main reason Salm said he is coming to the town for the project is because Berlin has the sewer capacity and the necessary services for multi-family housing. If he were to develop the property in the county, it would have to be for commercial use.
“The only way I could have even contemplated this is the provision of public water and sewer,” he said.
Salm said he and his wife purchased the property in 2007 and moved their engineering office there. They’ve also built some self-storage units and leased office space on the site, including a veterinarian’s office and Assateague Coastal Trust.
Currently, the property is zoned as C-2 (commercial) in the county, and it would need to be annexed into the town for residential development.
“We have all of the required prerequisites for requesting [an] annexation,” Moore said. “We comport with the comprehensive plan. Most importantly, we comport with the future land use plan in the town, and we are already in a growth area.”
Located in Growth Area No. 3 of Berlin’s Comprehensive Plan, the property can be annexed into town.
“As you all are aware, we have to be in a growth area under the provisions of the municipal government article of the annotated code to request an annexation into town,” Moore said.
Moore pointed out that Growth Area No. 3 is the largest growth area and is recommended for residential development in the comprehensive plan.
The location of the proposed Victorian Oaks Manor is between U.S. Route 113 and U.S. Route 50.
“If we proceed with a notion that annexation can be considered, we would provide as part of our annexation request a traffic study, showing the impact of the potential development on traffic,” Moore said. “It is important to know when you look at the county existing zoning, it is all C-2 commercial, and as we all know commercial uses are high trip generators. Residential uses are not.”
If annexation is approved, a rezoning to R-4 would be requested to allow for a residential development.
Before beginning the annexation process, Salm asked for the commission’s opinions of his proposal.
Commission member Newt Chandler said the density of a four-story building was too much.
“It’s just a huge building on the skyline over there,” he said. “I just think it’s a lot of people. Where are they going to go? What are they going to do here?”
Moore argued that there is plenty to do with the close proximity to downtown.
Commission member Matthew Stoehr said he believes the project is necessary in the area, especially for the younger generation.
“Housing is skyrocketing in Berlin,” he said. “Most people can’t afford to move to Berlin, and I know people who want to live in downtown. They enjoy downtown, but they just can’t … To me, this is something I’ve been waiting for Berlin to look at for a while.”
Stoehr added that a critical component of the development would be pedestrian access to downtown.
“We see this as a starter for people wanting to come, for people who want to work in restaurants,” said Salm, who has previously owned several multi-family housing developments with his wife.
Salm added that the residences would also be ideal for young families with the elevator service for strollers.
Commission member Ron Cascio said the proposed project is similar to Oceans East.
“I’m totally against annexation for residential use that the town’s people will end up subsidizing,” Cascio said. “That’s exactly what happens with residential subdivision when it’s out of town. We end up subsidizing.
“This is just one more step to Berlin becoming Salisbury. That’s how I feel,” he continued.
With sewer capacity on the project, Salm said the property will be developed one way or another.
The types of uses in the county that can be developed based on the current zoning and sewer capacity are contractor shops, storage, warehouses and small retail shops, Salm said.
Cascio said his opposition is on behalf of the people he represents.
“At some point, Berlin is not going to be the town that people want to come to anymore,” Cascio said. “I know people who are ready to move out because of some of the stuff that’s going on.”
Moore said residential development at the property would result in less traffic than commercial development.
“We want proximity, we want connectivity, to the center of town,” Salm said. “Putting this out somewhere else doesn’t seem to make sense.”
Salm said he has already selected the architect and the housing façade will match the Victorian style of the town.
Chair Chris Denny asked if Salm was dead set on four-story buildings. Salm said changing the building size would impact the economics of the project and he would have to rework the plans.
“I suggest you head in that direction,” Cascio said.
Stoehr asked about the economics of constructing townhomes.
“The townhomes just can’t be built affordably,” Salm responded.
With the proposed layout, Salm said he would have to build the entire residential community at once.
“I can’t have people living there with that type of disruption,” he added.
Cascio said he would not support the annexation that would be the first step of the development process.
“Maybe I can wow you with my footwork, Ron,” Moore joked.
“Start dancing, Joe,” Cascio replied.
Commission members Pete Cosby, Phyllis Purnell and alternate David “DJ” Lockwood were not present for the meeting.