By Greg Ellison
(April 22, 2021) The Berlin Board of Zoning Appeals voted 3-1 last Wednesday to permit private outdoor-tented events at The Inn Berlin, formerly The Waystead Inn, after tabling discussions in February over a larger request.
The Inn Berlin owners Giovanni Pino and Karen Tomasello, who purchased the property at 15 Harrison Avenue in 2020, asked the board on Feb. 3 for a special exception for a conditional use to permit outdoor gatherings for a maximum of 100 people.
Citing concerns over guest counts, parking requirements and frequency of events, Vice-Chairman Woody Bunting in February moved to table the matter until Planning Director Dave Engelhart could provide further clarity.
Returning on April 14, Attorney Hugh Cropper offered an amended variance request from the Tomasello’s, reducing the maximum head count to 60 for private outdoor events on the 1.5-acre property.
Cropper questioned assertions the bed and breakfast operation, which is being leased to the Tomasellos’ son and daughter-in-law, Marco and Maya, would prove detrimental for the area.
“They will be good neighbors … they live there,” he said.
Maya Tomasello said the goal is to hold intimate outdoor events for families celebrating anniversaries, birthdays or nuptials.
“Primarily, we’d like to have weddings as the thing we’re looking most forward to,” she said.
Cropper said Tomasello’s earlier capacity count was based on minimum requirements for a Worcester County liquor license, which has been amended and now seeks approval for only beer and wine.
In October 2011, former Waystead Inn owner Mark Kauffman was approved to launch a bed and breakfast venue featuring five rooms for up to 10 overnight guests.
In June 2012, Kauffman was granted a conditional use to host dinner parties for a maximum of 30 people including overnight guests.
Cropper said the Tomasellos are now seeking a special exception to the previously authorized conditional use to allow tented events in the front or rear of the location.
“The indoor capacity would still be 30 people but it won’t exceed 60 total,” he said.
Cropper said entertainment would be limited to non-amplified musical performers ending by 9 p.m.
“We will offer the same restriction to the [Worcester] liquor board next week,” he said.
Cropper said in addition to 21 onsite parking spaces, an earlier agreement to use 40 spots at the Worcester Library at 13 Harrison Avenue was reached with the Worcester County Commissioners.
The terms specify the Inn Berlin must request use of library parking at least three-weeks in advance and outside of normal hours of operation.
Board member John Apple said the previous conditional use approval failed to clarify the number of events allowed.
“This is still a residential property,” he said.
Bunting said other concerns surround the possibility of the Inn Berlin to expand beyond bed and breakfast operations to offering restaurant services to the general public.
“Are you forecasting a large clientele?” he said.
Tomasello said the prior special exception conditional use approval permitted breakfast, lunch and dinner service.
“As of now, I’m not planning on serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to the general public,” she said.
Still, based on the earlier agreement, Tomasello said the potential would exist to broaden offerings at a later date.
“We would like to be able to continue to do that and reevaluate our availability and offerings at a later date,” she said.
Since establishing a website for the Inn Berlin, Tomasello said inquiries have been received for room bookings but not events or gatherings.
“The social media feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and especially from locals in Berlin,” she said.
The website, theinnberlin.com, highlights background details for the 18th Century Victorian mansion, which was fully restored a decade ago.
“There’s so much interesting history tied to the property,” she said.
Cropper said the site has historical significance.
“This is a really nice old building that needs to be utilized by the public,” he said.
Cropper also argued the R-2 zoned property provided a transition from the adjacent library and Berlin Fire Company headquarters building at 214 N. Main Street.
Bunting, who moved to approve the conditional use in 2012, said the special exception request failed to specify scheduling details for private events.
“I’m looking at this as a restaurant and it’s in a residential area … that technically isn’t allowed,” he said. “That was not my intent when I made the motion.”
Bunting asked if the board should consider the matter a re-zoning issue.
“We’re expanding upon that and I worry that makes it even more of a commercial use,” he said.
Cropper said the bed and breakfast functions as a quasi-commercial use, while stressing the board’s previously approved conditional use was tied to the property and transferred to new ownership.
“It is an opinion of this board that is the record of this town,” he said. “These folks bought this property and paid a lot of money for it based in no small part on this opinion.”
Pino Tomasello testified that prior to purchasing the historic Harrison Avenue site last year, he confirmed permitted uses with town officials.
“I was told since 2012 it was used as bed and breakfast and restaurant,” he said. “I don’t want to create any issues with neighbors but I bought this property with what was given in writing.” Tomasello, a seasoned Ocean City restaurateur, said the prior operator had installed commercial kitchen facilities.
After founding Pino’s Pizza in 1983 and Giovanni’s in 1986, Tomasello owned Fresco’s on 83rd Street from 2000-2014, and then in West Ocean City opened Sello’s, which he sold.
“I’ve been in Ocean City for 40 years and I’ve never had any issues with neighbors,” he said. “We spent besides the purchase … over $150,000 on improvements.”
Board chairman Joe Moore said the previous findings of fact were a primary factor for Tomasello to acquire the property.
“The issue [would be] is this property different in a detrimental effect,” he said. “People have a right to rely on the action of any zoning authority that is reflected in the official findings of fact.”
Engelhart said the previous owner didn’t take full advantage of the restaurant operations permitted under the 2012 conditional use approval.
“The issue we’re stuck on … at the time is the mention of a dinner club, but that’s not the way the motion was made,” he said. “He was never asking for a restaurant.”
Despite the apparent confusion between prior meeting minutes and findings of fact in 2012, Engelhart said the current appeal is to hold tented events outdoors.
“It’s not a question of the previous conditional use,” he said.
Cropper said the venture would be of a low-impact nature.
“We would like to limit it to 20 maximum events annually,” he said.
Maya Tomasello said all events would be monitored first hand.
“We will be on site to enforce any restrictions,” she said. “We hope to hold events to enrich the community, bring people to town and develop the economy.”
In one final concession, Tomasello agreed to limit outdoor gatherings to no more than one unrelated event per week.
The Board of Zoning Appeals voted 3-1 with Bunting opposed to approve the special exception request.