Buoyed by poll, Falmouth councilors eye Route 1 zoning changes

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FALMOUTH — As the debate over development along Route 1 heads to the Town Council for a vote on Monday, an unscientific survey of residents found overwhelming support for limiting the size of buildings and constructing them closer to the street.

The discussion comes on the heels of an announcement that Walmart plans to expand its Route 1 store into the existing Regal Cinemas space next door. Walmart has signed a lease for the theater’s space, although the theater’s departure date has not been set.

The survey of residents, which was available to anyone on the town’s website and sent to business owners and residents via e-mail, found that 63 percent of the 332 respondents favored maximum footprint limits in the business district, while only 28.6 percent did not.

“We’re moving ahead with the recommendation that there definitely be a footprint restriction on future buildings,” Councilor Bonny Rodden, the Community Development Committee chairwoman, said.

The CDC, a council subcommittee, met Tuesday to discuss the issue, but Councilor Teresa Pierce, one of the three councilors on the committee, was not in attendance. Councilors Faith Varney and Rodden disagreed on several issues, including the recommended footprint limit and setback requirements.

Rodden said she would like to see a footprint limit of 75,000 square feet, while Varney would like to see a limit of 90,000 square feet.

“I can’t imagine anything coming into town bigger than that, that we would want here,” Varney said.

The current Shaw’s supermarket is 72,000 square feet and the Walmart/Regal Cinemas building is 107,000 square feet.

Limits imposed on future buildings would not affect Walmart’s planned expansion, which is expected to move forward after the council failed to support limiting footprints of existing buildings at its Jan. 10 meeting.

In the comments section of the town survey, there were diverse responses to a question asking about limiting the footprints. Some respondents suggested limits as small as 30,000 square feet and called for “no big-box stores,” while others called for case-by-case evaluations of projects and said the town should not limit commercial development.

In addition to footprint limits, the council will also discuss setback requirements. Currently, new buildings must be 80 feet from the road. However, the Planning Board has the right to reduce the requirement by up to 50 percent, which, according to Long Range Planning Director Theo Holtwijk, it does routinely.

Gorham Savings Bank received such a variance for the branch recently constructed on Route 1 at Clearwater Drive, Holtwijk said.

“(The Planning Board) has effectively worked with the reduced setback, but you cannot come any closer than 40 feet,” Holtwijk said.

Both Varney and Rodden would like to see that change.

Rodden would like to see setbacks of 25 feet or less, which would put new construction along the street and move parking behind or beside buildings.

“The point is to give it, over a long period of time, more of a flavor of a pedestrian village,” Rodden said.

Varney would like to see setbacks of up to 55 feet, which would allow new businesses to construct a single row of parking in front of their buildings.

“I don’t think we should be quite as rigid, based on the survey and the comments that were made,” she said.

The respondents to the survey were more divided on the setback issue, with 45.1 percent in favor of buildings close to the street and 35.7 percent opposed. However, many of those who voted in favor said this was not the only way to create a more pedestrian-friendly shopping district; they cited landscaping, sidewalks and traffic issues as other issues to consider.

Some of those opposed to the change suggested that the Route 1 shopping area is predominantly supported by vehicle traffic, and that attempts to reduce that could be detrimental to businesses.

The third issue the council will likely take up is the concept of requiring businesses to build usable second floors on all new buildings. While this was the initial proposal when the issue first came to the council in September 2010, both Varney and Rodden agreed that requiring businesses to build a second floor is unrealistic.

Instead, the CDC will recommend the council require new buildings to be constructed in such a way that second floors could be constructed in the future, without the requirement that they be included in the initial construction.

The council is scheduled to discuss and vote on potential zoning ordinance changes at its Jan. 24 meeting.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net