By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(June 21, 2018) The Berlin Planning Commission last Wednesday gave mixed reviews to proposed developments for an 18.65-acre parcel of land on the corner of routes 50 and 346.
Ernie Gerardi, the property owner, said he views it as gateway into town necessary for growth, while some on the commission saw the potential annexation and development as unnecessarily opening up floodgates for sprawl.
Gerardi, in a March 31 letter to Planning Director Dave Engelhart, said nothing in the preliminary plan was fixed except for the farmer’s market and convenience store.
Also potentially included were a restaurant, auto dealership, 17,300 square feet of retail shops, and an 80-room hotel and 36-unit apartment building.
Gerardi said the proposal was discussed during previous planning meetings, as well as on three separate occasions with Mayor Gee Williams and once with Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells.
The convenience store, Gerardi said, would include a fast food component and “provide space for a display for Berlin’s businesses/events at no charge.” The town would also be granted at no cost a perpetual easement on the most western tip of the property, for signs.
Attorney Joe Moore, representing Gerardi, said the estimated property tax benefit to the town totaled more than $105,000, based on the preliminary concept for the property.
The development will eventually have to be added to the growth area, annexed into town and rezoned, but Moore and Gerardi last Wednesday said they had yet to ask the planning commission to pursue those steps officially.
“What we are asking for, informally tonight, is to get your input with regard to our request,” Moore said, adding Maryland code requires the town to notify state and county planning authorities before the public hearing on whether to amend the growth area. He said Engelhart forwarded the same packets provided to the planning commission to state and county officials.
The property is already in the county growth area, Moore said.
“We will come before you all on at least three more occasions,” he said, starting with a formal request for a public hearing on adding the parcel to the growth area. Planning commission meetings would also be necessary for annexation and site-plan approval, Moore said.
Gerardi said he’s looked at the property for many years “and thought it was a very ugly piece of property, and frankly never thought about much about it other than it was ugly.”
“I then started focusing on … what could be done with it and it hit me. Coming down [Route] 50, as far as your eye can see, you can that property and there will be nothing ever put there that’s going to block it,” Gerardi said. “So, it has tremendous, tremendous visibility.
“What struck me is, this ought to be our gateway coming into town,” he added.
Commission member Pete Crosby said development of the land there had been considered for perhaps three years.
“My feeling then was what it is now – the town is almost there. It’s a natural entrance,” he said. “It’s a gateway and it is an eventuality, and it just seems to me to me … we would be pig-headed not to recognize the benefits of a gateway like this.
“We probably ought to annex it and get on with it,” Cosby added.
Chairman Chris Denny agreed.
“I’d like to see Mr. Gerardi build it – if there’s going to be something out there,” he said.
Commission member Ron Cascio was less enthusiastic.
“I think that this being the gateway into town will ruin the area,” he said. “We all know that if we annex this small property … everything between here and the town gets annexed at the same time.”
Moore disagreed, because part of Route 50 had already been annexed and Gerardi’s property was contiguous to that.
“The town cannot annex either of the properties between [Route] 818 and Mr. Gerardi without the consent of the people – you cannot force an annexation on a single property owner,” Moore said.
“I admit that it’s a technical contiguity, but it is the same contiguity that I used when we annexed the property that now is improved by the Royal Farms out by Stephen Decatur,” he continued. “It really doesn’t create a tidal wave or anything like that.”
Moore added he has represented only one other annexation request during the last 20 years, the Royal Farms case, and in that case the annexation was beneficial.
“I agree,” Cascio said, but adding, “I prefer not to take that inevitability [of development] as an inevitability.”
Cascio brought up public meetings on town growth held several years ago.
“What I heard at every one of those things was, ‘We don’t want the town to get any bigger. We like the town the size and way it is,’” he said. “I’ve heard, ‘this is the Salisbury-ification of the town.’ We don’t want that. We have a gem here … a small gem.”
He also disagreed with Gerardi’s earlier observation that “you grow, or you die.”
“I respectfully disagree,” Gerardi said. “I did a lot of consulting and studying, and every business and every town in this country, if it has no growth it will die.
“You lose all of your young people over time and your leaders just don’t stay,” he continued. “Look at the towns around here … most of them died because they had no growth. People go someplace else.”
Gerardi said controlling growth is important – but some managed growth is necessary for survival.
Councilman Thom Gulyas declined to comment on the proposal, but said “Mr. Gerardi has done a fabulous job with all of his properties in town.”
“No one would disagree with the good things Mr. Gerardi has done – in town,” Cascio said.
Cascio, after the meeting, acknowledged he was previously in favor of the development.
Discussed with the planning commission on June 15, 2015, the project at the time would have included a welcome center, convenience store, small retail strip, hotel, drug store and a restaurant, according to the meeting minutes. Cascio at the time moved to annex the property into town and add it to the growth area.
“In the years since, I reluctantly suggested the project had merit the scope of the project has changed, and I can accept/admit when I make mistakes and work towards correcting them,” he said. “That’s my responsibility as a representative of the fine people of this town, both now and in the future.”