By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 21, 2019) The audience was smaller than expected, but those who did attend three recent public meetings hosted by the Town of Berlin on environmental and operational resiliency said they were pleased with the information presented.
Meetings were held in three different locations last Thursday and Saturday, and on Monday.
Mayor Gee Williams, in introducing the inaugural session at Buckingham Elementary School, said these types of informational summits had become the norm in Berlin.
“The more information we share, the better off we’ll be,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think that’s how we’ve gotten here, because none of this was by just one person, or one group … it’s been a partnership effort and I hope that we can continue [that process].”
Facilitator Brandy Espinola from the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center began each session with a PowerPoint presentation.
Last Thursday, she compared the climate to a personality and the weather to a mood.
“Any day, you can wake up and have a different mood. You can be happy. You can be sad. You can be angry. But, overall, your personality is not going to change,” she said. “When we’re thinking about climate, it’s that really long-term look at what’s going on.”
Espinola explored several broader trends related to climate change, later adding, “things are changing … and we want to make sure that as they change we’re ready to deal with them, both as an individual person, but also as a community.”
“The longer we wait to start talking about this and planning for this … the more expensive it’s going to get,” Espinola added.
She said an updated comprehensive plan and resilience study would be part of that planning effort.
“The comprehensive plan drives the priorities of this community,” she said, adding there may be separate plans for economic development, transportation or housing. “We want to see that resilience starts to make its way into all these different things, so we can start thinking about the future and making sure that we are protecting ourselves and our future generations.”
About a dozen people attended the first meeting, including Shore Craft Beer founder Ann Hillyer, Lower Shore Land Trust Director Kate Patton, and District 2 Town Councilman Zack Tyndall.
Hillyer said the meetings were “a good thing for the town to be doing,” but added she was disappointed those who attended were “always the same, small group.”
“I don’t think it represents a cross-section of Berlin by any stretch of the imagination,” she said. “But, I think that the town is well-meaning and we do need to plan for the future, and we do have serious and significant problems like stormwater runoff.”
Patton said the conversation was an important one and she was happy to have attended.
Particularly effect, she said, was a budget breakdown by Town Administrator Laura Allen that showed show how funding is dispersed to different departments.
“That was somewhat revealing, I think, for people that are paying attention to the budget,” Patton said. “I just thought that’s important to understand.”
Also vital, she said, was how town leadership plans to adapt to changing weather patterns. Patton said rising sea levels are one issue, but for Berlin changing weather patterns also raises concerns about “how that affects our community in terms of flooding.”
She added it was important to note “how we are looking ahead and how we are making the best decisions to prevent flooding, rather than having to mitigate after we have flooding.”
“I think we need to take some hard stands when it comes to planning for that prevention and that adaptability,” Patton said.
Tyndall said it was helpful having a representative from the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center as a facilitator.
“I was a little disappointed with the turnout, but overall I think that the workshop was very informative,” he said. “It was nice to be able to chat with everyone and kind of go through the process of the planning element, and … it gets you thinking about things that you wouldn’t normally think about.”
Tyndall also pointed to Allen’s budget discussion as a standout.
“I thought Laura did a great job at the end with the overview of how the town handles the general fund budget, and I think a lot of people really liked that discussion,” he said. “I think that session was very informative.”
Allen, reached on Tuesday, also said the meetings went well, but attendance could have been higher. She said some of that was made up for by live internet streaming video made available on Monday night.
“We didn’t have the turnout that we had hoped, especially at the first two meetings, but last night we had about 15 people in the room and then I think at one point up to 200 people via Facebook Live,” she said. “Even though we had a couple of small groups, the folks that did show up were very interested in the conversation and gave us some really good ideas and things to work on.”
Along with the environmental discussion led by Espinola and Allen’s budgetary dive, attendees were asked for their opinions on how the town could ensure a strong financial future, as well as how they could encourage further participation in the budget process, Allen said.
“The resilience component, I think, is going to be very helpful in terms of getting the details the community would really like us to see in the comprehensive plan,” she said. “One of the things I talked about in presentation is the importance of having a financial plan or, as some communities call it, a business plan for your comprehensive plan.
“Those conversations we had on both topics, the resilience part and financial sustainability, I think are very important because that will help us put together a longer range plan that the community can roll out, with the goal of increasing our resilience when it comes to those kinds of impacts that we can have as a community from time to time,” Allen added.
Among the potential challenges the town is facing, Allen said sea-level rise projections, for example, at their most extreme show “Ocean City is really going to be under a significant amount of water.” So much saltwater creeping over the shoreline would affect Berlin in different ways, she said.
“We didn’t talk about saltwater intrusion into our well system much, but that’s something we’re working hard to avoid,” Allen said. “To the extent that we can plan, I think that we can probably avoid some of the more difficult or expensive issues from developing.”
She was unsure whether the town would continue to stream some public meetings. All Ocean Pines Board meetings, for example, are live-streamed and made available on YouTube, while Worcester County Commissioner meetings are recorded and generally made available on YouTube within 24 hours.
“It largely depends on what the mayor and council would like us to do,” Allen said. “From a budget standpoint in terms of getting information out to folks, I think it’s a really useful opportunity.”
She said the town is considering a series of “webinars” based on the upcoming budget, as well as other “topic-focused webinars” to be made available on the town’s website.
“One of the things that came up last night was could [the town] give quarterly updates on the budget, and that may be the format we chose to do those in,” Allen said. “The public access channel that we have can run videos and the electronic newsletters that we push out can have videos embedded, so folks could actually watch from the comfort of their home.
“I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that democracy does require some level of deliberation and that, generally, involves having conversations with your neighbors,” she continued. “From what I saw through these meetings, that’s something that the community really enjoys and that was some of the feedback that we got as well – that we should be doing more of these kinds of meetings.”
The next Town Council meeting is scheduled Monday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall on 10 William Street.
Additionally, the town scheduled a public meeting on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Stephen Decatur High School. According to the meeting agenda, “The mayor and council will listen to public comments and questions regarding increases to” real estate property tax rates, water and sewer rates, and stormwater fee rates.
Allen said a draft document based on the resilience meetings should be available in June or July. The meetings were funded by $20,000 in grants from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.