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Developer Rinnier to resubmit text amendment to BPC

(Oct. 1, 2015) What looked like a fairly straight forward text amendment on a town zoning ordinance erupted into debate on the growth of the town of Berlin during a public meeting on Monday.
Earlier this year, Rinnier Development Company’s 700-plus-townhome complex on Seahawk Road received approval from the Berlin Planning Commission, with the condition that the commission and the Town Council had to approve an amendment expanding the current limits on dwelling units inside multi-family buildings.
While that number is current set at 12, the commission voted 4-2 to recommend Berlin update its zoning code to allow for “any number” of units at the discretion of the Planning Commission.
After nearly an hour of discussion, however, and under pressure from the mayor and council as well as a pair of residents, attorney Mark Cropper, representing the developer, withdrew his request for the amendment.
Upon opening a required public hearing on the matter, Berlin Mayor Gee Williams and Town Attorney David Gaskill initially called the amendment a “simple change.”
“What this text amendment does, it still holds firm to that ‘no more than 12’ dwelling units [restriction], but it does grant the planning commission the authority to allow more than 12 units if, in the opinion of the Planning Commission, it would be a good zoning practice, convenient public necessity [and] in favor of the public welfare,” Gaskill said.
Mitchell David, a resident of Berlin, was first to raise an objection, saying the change would allow for “an unlimited amount” of dwellings.
“I’m for the [Seahawk Road] development out there, I think it’s a spot for it, [but] I think you’re opening up some floodgates,” he said. “There is no end to this number. That’s my concern.”
David noted that the Planning Commission is not voted into office, but rather appointed by the mayor.
“If we have a pro-growth mayor, we’re going to have a pro-growth commission,” he said. “To say this is a text amendment … they’re missing the boat on this.
“I think this needs to go back to the Planning Commission,” David added. “To me, I think this needs a little bit more thought. I think at least another meeting or hearing or something where … this can be brought to a different light and not just considered a text amendment.”
He also asked if the town had pursued a Planned Urban Development (PUD) exception rather than seek to amend town code.
“PUD was on the table and even discussed, but due to concerns regarding density … the desire of the planning commission as well as the mayor and council at the time was that this be restricted by or limited by the R-4 zoning classification,” Gaskill said.
Cropper admitted he and the developer were unaware of the public hearing until just 40 minutes before the meeting. As a result, Blair Rinnier, the lead on the project, could not make the meeting.
Still, he insisted the measure was simply a text amendment and said it was drafted, with Gaskill, to “give it integrity and some security for concerns of the mayor and council.”
“Those are the standards that the council is bound by for any other types of changes,” Cropper said. “The same standards and criteria were put in the text amendment.”
Cropper also argued that the “12 unit limitation hasn’t changed.”
“It’s only if the developer on a particular piece of property with a particular project can meet this criteria that the Planning Commission even has the authority of the ability to deviate from that 12-unit limitation.”
According to Cropper, in this instance, the exception to consolidate a certain amount of units in fewer buildings was sought “to create open space.”
“In the judgment of your Planning Commission they thought that was a good thing and that it would make for a better project,” he said. “I’d be the first to admit in many projects that will come before the Planning Commission exceeding the 12-unit limitation is likely not going to be a public necessity … I think it’s going to be the rare circumstance.”
Cropper said the commission originally approved the final site plan six weeks ago, contingent on the amendment, and that Rinnier was approved for 778 units. The current height limitations, he added, would not be affected by the change in code.
If the text amendment is not eventually passed in some form, he said, the developer could still “build the same number of units.”
“You’re just going to have it in a lot more buildings,” he said. “This way you consolidate the number of units in a building, enhance the open space in the project and create a much better project. That’s the purpose of this text amendment, that’s the goal of this text amendment and that’s all we’re trying to achieve.”
Councilmember Lisa Hall, however, suggested the developer was “putting the cart before the horse.”
“Why would I move forward with a project that was being planned around a text amendment that hasn’t … been approved?” she asked, comparing the project to the Gateway Grand in Ocean City.
“I just feel like the code was set for Berlin to try and keep the town quaint,” Hall added. “I just feel like we’re at a critical point now, we’ve done a lot of things for this town [and] we’ve got to protect it. We’re kind of on the cusp of losing our small town charm if we don’t protect our building codes and our architectural guidelines.”
Another resident, Darlene Jameson, suggested the town needed to get “better input from the public,” and said the hearing was not well advertised.
Councilmember Gulyas countered that, while he was a “staunch vote against” the project from the start, “the fact is it was publicized.”
“It was in four newspapers,” Williams said. “If we had to take a poll on every decision we made there would be absolutely nothing [happening] because most people would never get back with us.”
Williams argued against setting too many restrictions.
“What we’re trying to do is to find a happy medium,” he said. “One philosophy is that we keep [Berlin] very exclusive and quite frankly [if that happens] all the people who have lived here for many generations will eventually have to be forced out. I will fight to my dying day to make sure that this remains a place that is affordable for the working class.
“This is not any longer a community that thought that it would never, ever exceed 4,000 people,” Williams continued. “Now we’re in a situation where we have young families lined up, wanting to move here, and there’s no place for them to live.”
Still, the mayor admitted he was concerned that the amendment had “no upper limit.”
“I’m not comfortable with this without a cap,” he said. “I do think that whatever that cap should be should go back to the Planning Commission.”
Cropper conceded, saying he would consult with the developer. At the advice of Gaskill, he withdrew his request.
Speaking with the Gazette on Tuesday, Blair Rinnier said he planned to resubmit to the Planning Commission within the next 30 days.
“My understanding from the meeting is the Town Council was looking for a ceiling, so that’s what we’re going to come back and suggest,” he said. “I get the message that they don’t want something too big, and something that’s going to work for, not just our project, but the future.”