BERLIN – Town attorney David Gaskill updated the Town Council on his opinion of the town’s legal liability in the dispute over whether or not the Atlantic Hotel should be forced to remove windows installed without the blessing of the town historic commission.
The original application by the hotel was denied by a 2-1 vote, Gaskill said. Since a quorum is three and nothing can be passed without three affirmative votes, he said the vote might have been void.
“It’s certainly arguable that the historic district commission vote was not valid,” he said.
“My advice, simply, is the same now that it was then,” he said. “The historic commission has the authority and the right to enforce the decision on its own.”
The council cannot make the hotel reapply nor can it reset the hearing process, he said, but the historic commission could elect to take the Atlantic Hotel ownership to court.
Should the historic commission decide to sue, they could force the mayor to send a letter to the hotel demanding the windows be removed. If the hotel decides not to remove the windows, they could argue in court whether assurances from the town that nothing would be done took away their rights to appeal. They could also argue whether the hearing at which the application was denied was a valid meeting.
“The ball is in the court right now, of the historic commission,” said Councilwoman Paula Lynch.
The council voted to direct Gaskill to send a letter to the historic commission advising them that they should decided whether they’d like to pursue a suit against the hotel. Three of the historic commission members would have to agree to sue.
“Over time the economic and regulatory environment…has changed dramatically,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “As a practical matter the mayor and council have had to rely more on [consultants].”
While he said he sincerely believed that all parties had the town’s best interest at heart, Williams said that since the mayor and council were ultimately responsible for all decisions regarding the public utilities the decisions regarding them should rest upon them.
Erik Quisgard, who chaired the BUC, said he disagreed with the decision. He said that he understood that the council had the ultimate responsibility, having a body whose job it was to represent both the utility’s and the rate payers’ interests.
Councilman Elroy Brittingham who was on the council that established the BUC said it was time to make things more responsive to market fluctuations and regulatory demands. “During the course of the years, it has drastically changed and I just feel there should be a change,” he said.
Williams presented some suggestions to the council for ways the slot impact fees could be spent that would appease the Local Development Council, which oversees the impact fee expenditures, and still be used in productive and predictable ways.
Since the council voted to use the slots funds to pay off the land they purchased at the corner of Route 113 and Bay Street, Williams suggested the first $168,000 in received slot impact grants each year should be designated toward that. At that rate the purchase would be paid in five years.
Brittingham reminded Williams that part of the post-purchase plan should include a community center.
The balance, whatever the town gets above and beyond the $168,000 could be divided between public safety and community development plans.
While the council members agreed generally they also suggested a plan be put in place for infrastructure work including sidewalk installation on the side of Flower Street that still needs one and rehabilitating the sidewalk on North Main Street.
For his part, Police Chief Arnold Downing said that his department has already increased patrols on weekends and is coordinating with the other area public safety officials to make sure there’s sufficient police presence in the area given the number of people.
To that end, Downing and Town Administrator Anthony Carson argued over how quickly Downing could begin the hiring procedure. Given that Berlin has the lowest police pay in the area; it is becoming next to impossible to keep employees who often get better salary offers from neighboring towns. Police officers start at $30,000 and the next lowest pay in the area is $36,500, according to Downing in Ocean Pines.
Since towns often pay police tuition in the academy, and certified officers find work easily elsewhere, officers who Berlin pays for can often buy out their own contracts and still net more in the end.
Downing warned the council unsuccessfully of the turnover problem during the last budget session.