By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Oct. 11, 2018) Public interest was slightly less than expected Tuesday night, as the Berlin Town Council voted 4-1 to pave the way for the annexation and development of a new “Berlin Gateway” on Route 50 by adding three parcels of land to its growth area.
The property owner, Ernie Gerardi, is known for restoring old commercial and residential buildings in and around the downtown area.
Gerardi said Tuesday he wants to develop the property at the corner of Route 50 and Old Ocean City Boulevard into an attractive new entrance to Berlin. The project could include a gas station and welcome center, hotel, retail spaces, and a car dealership.
“I’ve done several buildings in this town. Frankly, some of your worst buildings,” he said. “I’ve made them into nice-looking properties … I did it as an investment, but I did it because I wanted the town to look a lot better.”
Gerardi said he picked “all the worst things on main streets coming into town” – including William Street, Main Street and Broad Street – and made improvements.
“I still believe [the proposed gateway] will be an attractive thing coming in our town. I still believe it can be done in a very tasteful manner,” Gerardi said. “I live in this town. I don’t want the quality of life to be diminished – that would be stupid.”
Councilman Zack Tyndall, who is also running for Worcester County Commissioner for the Berlin district, opposed the development and cited public planning workshops and a residential survey that occurred about four years ago. Tyndall said nearly 25 percent of the townspeople responded and many said a top priority was minimizing sprawl.
“Fifty three percent of the respondents felt expanding the town’s existing boundaries through annexation was inappropriate,” Tyndall said. He asked Gerardi if he could wait until the next stage of public planning meetings, which are expected to start around 2020.
Gerardi, 82, joked he could be dead by then.
“I believe that we develop plans for a reason. We ask people to participate in those surveys and workshops for a reason. And, with that, I respect the time that they gave, therefore I will not be voting to amend the comprehensive plan,” Tyndall said.
The Berlin Planning Commission held a similar public hearing in July, when 18 residents offered public comments and 12 were in favor. With that input, the commission voted 5-1 to recommend adding the land to the growth area.
On Tuesday night at Town Hall, a slightly less sizeable crowd gathered and only four people made comments – two for and two against.
One man said he was concerned if the property is annexed into town, it would only encourage more annexation.
Jeff Smith agreed.
“There’s definitely the potential for opening up 500 acres of development along Old Ocean City Boulevard,” he said. “Unless the council is going to address that, I would tend to agree with Councilman Tyndall that this is a proposal that should wait until the entire town could have an opportunity to weigh in on it, as opposed to having it addressed by a handful of people.”
Carol Rose said she favored the development and the public hearing was the time to weigh in.
“It’s an opportunity for anybody in the town to come and voice their opinion one way or the other. It’s been advertised,” she said.
Cam Bunting also favored the proposal.
“I feel like if anybody else was interested, they would be here tonight for this meeting,” she said.
Bunting said much of the surrounding area was already in the growth area and could be developed if property owners were willing. She joked she met with one owner who said unless the head of Google was willing to pay him $160 million, “they have no interest in doing any kind of development.”
She also confronted Tyndall.
“I talked to Zack before about this property and, honestly, you didn’t want to know the facts,” Bunting said. “I tried to explain what [Gerardi] was trying to do and you had really already made your mind up.
“Until Mr. Gerardi came out and said what he was going to do with the property, your part as a councilperson was to be open to that,” she added.
Mayor Gee Williams said the decision boiled down to whether the town wanted to have a say in what happened to the property, or whether they wanted to leave that up to the county. The land is already in the county growth area.
“Quite frankly, it’s not their business to decide how our town develops, what our character is, what our values are, what’s important to us,” Williams said. “That’s not their job – that’s our job.”
Councilman Dean Burrell agreed with earlier remarks that the public hearing was the opportunity for people to comment. He said plenty of citizens had also voiced their opinions to him on the street – and in checkout lines at Walmart.
“The overwhelming response I have got for this project is that it is a positive thing … and good for the Town of Berlin,” he said.