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Berlin battles commission on design standards

(Jan. 15, 2015) Berlin Mayor Gee Williams and the Town Council continued to grapple with the Planning Commission over architectural design standards that will govern new commercial buildings during a public meeting on Monday.
Debate began as the council introduced a public hearing on an ordinance that would amend the town code to say that the commission  “shall as part of its site plan review process review and approve all proposed commercial development to ensure it compliments and enhances the town’s historic architectural character and uniqueness.”
Several members of the council pounced on the vague wording of the amendment.
District 4 Councilmember Dean Burrell said he hoped the change would not give the commission “the authority to nitpick some developer to death.”
“This is what’s going to be our basis for our decisions so that I, as a member of our commission, won’t have the veto power to stick my personal beliefs about diamond-shaped windows into this discussion,” he said.
District 2 Councilmember Lisa Hall agreed.
“We spent … 30 years to bring this town where it is today,” she said. “We don’t want people putting neon lights all over the front of their commercial properties in Berlin.”
“I think that you need to keep the architectural integrity of this town as a Victorian town,” Hall continued.
Mayor Gee Williams zeroed in on growth outside the downtown area, stating that standards needed to be complimentary rather than homogenous.
“We’re not trying to recreate downtown Berlin, but we certainly want whatever we build or refurbish to compliment the architectural integrity of this town, which quite frankly is what the whole revitalization of this community was built on,” he said.
Williams and Planning Director Dave Englehart noted that the commission has been operating under “good faith” rather than legal authority.
“This will give them some legal basis for what they’ve already been doing,” Williams said. “It’s a temporary transitional situation.”
Williams asked Englehart, who advises the commission, to be expedient in coming up with a more specific set of standards.
“You tell them that’s our intention if they want our support,” he said. “I believe an overwhelming majority of people want this done.
“We want immediate work done on real standards,” Williams continued. “Let’s get it done. That’s the message I want you to send back to them.”
At-Large Councilmember Thom Guylas hammered the commission for its what he saw as its lack of direction.
“I’m not real excited about having that particular board, who can’t even come up with a set of guidelines, even something on a single sheet of paper, let alone have somebody here this evening … dictate what I should or shouldn’t put on the front of my building,” he said. “This is too vague. It’s too open. I don’t like the way they’ve written it at all.”
Englehart argued that the amendment was designed to be vague.
“It’s intentionally giving you leeway,” he said. “With a lack of standards and guidelines, which are going to take time … to get them to this point has been the fight of the year. This is, I will admit, an interim stopgap measure.
“My recommendation would be to adopt it so that you have something,” Englehart continued. “The planning commission, for at least 10 years, has been doing this function and gotten lucky that no one challenged it. No national company or no developer said, ‘I don’t have to do that.’ People have cooperated with them when they have asked them.”
“We want [the commission] to be reasonably expedient,” Williams said. “The clock is ticking.
“If development is going to happen in a rural community in this area … this is the community where it’s going to happen,” Williams continued.
The public hearing opened and closed without objection, and the council voted 3-1 in favor of the amendment, with Gulyas voting against and District 3 Councilmember Elroy Brittingham absent.
“I’m okay with this,” District 1 Councilmember Troy Purnell said. “I can work with this as an interim. But it’s a little scary.”
Williams planned to meet with commission Vice Chairman Chris Denny ahead of the next commission meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 14.
“I think all these people have the best interest [of Berlin],” Williams said. “We’re just saying let’s go. Let’s get her done.”