BERLIN — A discussion on proposed revisions to the town’s comprehensive re-zoning prompted the Berlin Planning Commission to set goals for how it will look to affect zoning in the future, including a desire to be more flexible with legal non-conforming use properties.
However, the commission expressed a “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude toward a majority of the zoning code, which Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward defended as still relevant, despite being adopted in the early 1970s.
“The code that we have is relatively strong, even for its age,” he told the commission.
Ward added that, in the last four years, there have not been many cases before the Board of Zoning Appeals, which is usually an indicator that the code is working.
However, not everything is perfect and Ward explained that aspects of the code are showing their age. Additionally, when the town does run into an issue, it’s usually a common one that could be addressed with re-zoning revisions.
“One big issue we run across a lot is re-development,” said Ward.
Because of the way Berlin’s code is structured, demolishing a building so the site can be re-developed also wipes out any legal non-conforming status the prior structure may have had. A recent example of this occurred last fall when developer Ernest Gerardi attempted to get permission to demolish a residential structure that stood in a commercial zone.
The original structure had stood on the property long enough that its status as a legal non-conforming property had been grandfathered in. However, Gerardi learned that if he completely demolished the decaying building, he would not be able to build another residential structure on the same lot, since it was in a commercial zone and would not retain the legal non-conforming designation once the original structure was gone.
Because of cases like that, the commission discussed the possibility of making the code more flexible in regard to continuing legal non-conforming statuses. Ward warned, though, that while the town would have benefitted by replacing a ruined building with a new one in Gerardi’s case, it would be at risk if it made legal non-conforming rules too liberal.
While he agreed, Commissioner Pete Cosby stressed that he wanted “oddities around, here and there,” and that legal non-conforming properties helped keep Berlin from becoming monotone or overly structured.
Overall, Ward advised patience.
“Obviously, this has to go in steps … these things tend to drag on extensively,” he said. “My suggestion to the commission is to set a goal.”
The commission agreed, and Commissioner Newt Chandler pointed out that, because most of the code is still sound, there was no great rush to start revisions.
“In my opinion, I don’t think [the code] needs a complete re-writing … I don’t see a lot of intrusion,” he remarked.
Chandler also cautioned against offhandedly changing a property’s zoning during the revision process as that could have a direct impact on its value.
“I think we need to be really careful about that,” he said.
Ward suggested that the commission take the next several months to go through the town zones systematically. Cosby liked the idea of combing through Berlin by “physical quadrants.”
The commission will begin by analyzing the town’s residential zones and, while no definite timeline was discussed, Ward said that with similar projects in the past, other planning commissions have had recommendations ready after 10-12 months.