(Aug. 16, 2018) A proposed new gateway into Berlin took a crucial step forward last Wednesday night, as the town planning commission voted 5-1 to recommend adding two parcels of land at the intersection of U.S. Route 50 and Old City Boulevard to growth area three of the Town of Berlin Comprehensive Plan.
Property owner Ernie Gerardi hopes to develop the parcels, totaling 18.65 acres, into a convenience store, car dealership, retail shops, hotel and restaurant. Earlier attempts to also include a 36-unit apartment building were abandoned.
Gerardi will now seek a comprehensive plan amendment from the Berlin Town Council, then request annexation into town, and finally return to the commission to ask for site plan approval.
Attorney Joe Moore, representing Gerardi, argued the parcels’ size was small, amounting to a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in the growth area, but the benefit would be big in terms of jobs, provide about $80,000 each year in tax benefits, and offer a significant increase in visibility from Route 50.
He said criticism that approval would create a “wave of annexations” was unfounded and disputed a notion previously stated by Councilman Zack Tyndall that the development could overwhelm Berlin’s water and sewer capacity.
Moore said an estimate from Berlin Public Works Director Jane Kreiter showed the entire proposal would require about 43 EDUs, or equivalent dwelling units measuring water consumption, and that 967 EDUs are available.
“This will be another Ernest Gerardi project of which this town can be proud and, most importantly, will provide an easy method for the visitors coming to this area to find a way to our great town,” Moore said.
Gerardi said he’s cleaned up the property and already invested money in infrastructure, including $189,000 to move power lines. He previously met with the planning commission on several occasions, including in 2015 when they unanimously endorsed his plans.
He envisioned a “beautiful gateway” into town that would include a visitor’s center with information about downtown attractions.
“The thing that struck me is, as far as the eye can you can see this property,” Gerardi said. “My idea is so that people get to know about Berlin on their way to Ocean City … On some rainy day, they saw something here about a nice restaurant or unique shops in downtown Berlin, and they might make a trip over to it.”
Interest in the project was high, as evidenced by the unusually large crowd in the Town Hall council chambers, and public comments on the project were roughly two-to-one in favor. Even those against it widely praised what Gerardi has already done in redeveloping Berlin homes and commercial centers.
Amy Field, chairwoman of the Berlin Falls Park Committee, called Gerardi a responsible developer, but said she didn’t see the need for a new gateway.
“I don’t doubt in any way his goodwill toward the town, but … my gut feeling is still that it’s not what’s best for [Berlin],” she said. “The town is bustling. The parking lots are full. The sidewalks are full. It just doesn’t seem like a problem that people can’t find our town.”
Susan Childs and Jonathan Hastings, who co-own property adjacent to Gerardi’s, said they were in support.
Carol Rose, chairwoman of the Berlin Historic District Commission and a Berlin native, said work done by Gerardi in the district “really has made a difference to our neighborhood.”
“He loves our town as much as I do. He is a man of his word,” Rose said. “Whatever would be approved would be what would be built, and I am in favor of it.”
Geo Mcelroy said the proposed visitor’s center inside a convenience store was a misnomer because “a visitor’s center is more than a bulletin board in a Wawa.”
“A car dealership on that piece of property leading into our town will be a blight,” she added.
Jeff Smith said he’s heard “lots of great things” about Gerardi, but added, “That doesn’t mean that just because a man wants to build a McDonald’s and a convenience store on the intersection of 50 and Old Ocean City Boulevard, that that’s a good idea.”
“You don’t make plans about a town because a guy’s a good man – you do it because it’s good for a town and no other reason,” Smith said.
Mary Moore, also a member of the Historic District Commission, said she was “a grand fan” of Gerardi.
“I care about historic downtown Berlin,” she said. “I applaud Mr. Gerardi for all he’s done for downtown Berlin, more than any resident, any person I’ve known.”
Cam Bunting said she has known Gerardi perhaps longer than anyone else in the room and also spoke on his behalf. She said he relocated from South Point to be closer to downtown, and built two restaurants there “because he decided he wanted some places to eat.”
“This has all benefited the town … he has spent enormous amounts of money on this town,” Bunting said. “Of anybody that could’ve bought this property and done anything with it, this is the man that you want, because he loves Berlin.”
Commission member Ron Cascio said the expansion would ultimately be a detriment to the town, despite Gerardi’s reputation.
“I have nothing but praise for Mr. Gerardi and what he has done in town,” Cascio said. “But we don’t give permits, we don’t give approval based on character, promises and intent. We give approval – or not – based on a plan.”
Commission member Pete Cosby was among those in favor, saying the project was a “no-brainer,” in part because it would empower the commission in the final site plan approval. Because the property was already in the county’s growth area, he argued if it were not eventually annexed the county could grant certain approvals without input from Town of Berlin officials.
“If anybody’s going to determine the fate of this land, I want it to be us,” Cosby said.
“I want the maximum economic potential out of this property in a way that is befitting the town and it’s character,” he continued. “This piece of entrance property is a natural commercial zone and I want to control it.”
Cascio voted “no” and another commission member, Barb Stack, abstained. Cosby, Chairman Chris Denny, John Barrett, Newt Chandler and Phyllis Purnell backed the recommended addition to the growth area.
Berlin Town Administrator Laura Allen last Friday said the next step in the process was for Planning Director Dave Engelhart to bring the commission recommendation to the mayor and council.
“Our code requires a public hearing, which means we have to advertise it in advance, so it will take some time to get on their agenda,” Allen said. “We’re looking at dates in September and October, but nothing is set yet.”
This story was updated from an earlier version.