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Berlin to consider commercial annexations

The IG Burton property on Old Ocean City Boulevard in Berlin is among several likely coming before the planning commission to request annexation hearings.

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(March 7, 2019) Three upcoming annexation proposals could be headed to the Berlin Planning Commission and Town Council, and each could have an impact on the town economy, according to Mayor Gee Williams.

Of the proposals, the lowest impact is said to be the IG Burton Chevrolet dealership on Old Ocean City Boulevard, which is in county limits but wants to tap into town water and sewer.

“Basically, all they’re going to do is eliminate the septic system they have onsite and getting rid of that, and hooking onto the [town] water and sewer line that goes right past their property,” Williams said.

Williams said an annexation proposal from the property owners was likely delayed, however, because of plans for a grand opening at the business.

Planning Director Dave Engelhart said several businesses in that area might be considering similar annexation proposals to get town services, but are also weighing whether those services are worth being added to the town tax rolls.

Williams said Town of Berlin utility lines already service the areas of Stephen Decatur High School and Stephen Decatur Middle School, as well as the Ocean’s East development on Seahawk Road.

“What’s happening, gradually, is that people all along those properties sooner or later tap in,” he said. “When they have to replace their septic system, they’ll find that it’s a lot more cost-efficient to just go ahead and hook up.”

The agenda for a March 13 Berlin Planning Commission tentatively includes discussion of annexing several parcels on Route 818 across from Berlin Main Place.

Williams said the town had not received economic impact estimates for the “Athena Plaza” development, but Town Administrator Laura Allen spoke with property owner Spiro Buas this week and was assured that information is forthcoming.

“We can’t have this hearing unless we have that information,” Williams said, adding the development would include a convenience store similar to a Royal Farms, along with a hotel and two sites for restaurants.

A third area, the proposed “Berlin Gateway” at the corner of Route 50 and Old Ocean City Boulevard owned by local developer Ernie Gerardi, was added to the town growth area last October. The development could include a gas station and welcome center, hotel, retail spaces, and a car dealership, but Williams said the town has yet to receive an annexation request from Gerardi.

“That is one where we’re just waiting to hear from Mr. Gerardi on what he wants to do next,” he said. “I’m sure he wants to put a sharp pencil to what he wants to do out there, because it’s quite ambitious … [and] I’m sure he’s just trying to figure out how to make it all work.

“I’m not sure when that will all come back. I certainly anticipate it,” he added.

Planning Director Dave Engelhart said a letter of request for annexation came from all three, but each was in a varying state of developing a formal annexation agreement. He said all three were likely to come before the Berlin Planning Commission – the first stage in a lengthy process – during the next six months.

The annexation process requires public hearings before both the planning commission and Berlin Town Council, as well as a period of advertising before each.

In general, Williams said commercial annexation is to be encouraged.

“I think we’re meeting the demand for residential and we’re certainly going to consider any application that comes along, but the opportunity for this community – and it’s long overdue – are the U.S. 50, U.S. 113 and Maryland 346 corridors,” Williams said. “Those three are already developing as they should be into prime commercial properties. They don’t impact existing residential areas. They’re just prime time and I think that time has started.

“It doesn’t happen all overnight, which is a good thing, but it’s been ready for prime time for a while and I think all the different factors are coming together so that, I think in the next 10 years, we’ll see more development along those three corridors than we did in the last 20,” he added.

What that means for town finances, according to Williams, is more income and less impact than with new residential development.

“When we get the sewer and water rates where they should be – and obviously should’ve been during the last few years – they will add income to the Town of Berlin,” Williams said. “Commercial properties tend to be less expense-intense than residential properties – that’s true everywhere, not just in Berlin.”

He said about 85 percent of development in the town is residential and roughly 15 percent is commercial.

“I think the more ideal situation is when you have a community with the old ‘80-20 rule,’ and I think we can get there without having to do anything unusual,” Williams said. “I’m sure most people are aware, we don’t give tax breaks – we don’t give development incentives. In fact, we’re the first community in this region to have impact fees.

“We do not lower the bar for any kind of development … we have a standard and, when people meet that standard, then we’ll certainly will give them every consideration,” he continued. “But, there are some communities and counties in this region who basically say, ‘We’ll take whatever you want and we’ll do whatever it takes to get you.’ We’re at the totally other end of the spectrum.

“If you don’t have standards, then how can you have a good, if not above-average quality of life?” Williams said. “It’s been working [in Berlin] and I don’t see any reason for us to deviate from that.”