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Falmouth council continues on path to town center vote

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Falmouth council continues on path to town center vote

FALMOUTH — The long-simmering debate over whether to create a new town center heated up at Monday night's Town Council meeting after library trustees announced they would not support a November bond referendum for the project.

"The Falmouth Memorial Library board is concerned about moving ahead at this time because the details of the recommendations are not complete or finalized," Trustee Sean Joyce said, reading a board resolution. "The FML Board believes it is not fiscally prudent to endorse the referendum in its current state."

After Joyce's presentation, the council held a lengthy public hearing on the issue. The approximately two dozen speakers represented an array of opinions about the proposal.

Several supported the measure that would establish the town center at the Plummer-Motz and Lunt school buildings, some speaking specifically about a proposed community center or new library, some asking that the measure be put on the ballot so the whole town can participate in making the decision.

"We have an asset. Once you lose it, you never get it back," resident Susan Howe said.

Another resident compared selling the property with Portland's decision to tear down Union Station in the early 1960s.

Others highlighted the Plummer building's historic significance to the town.

While a few speakers asked the council to consider a cost-reduced plan that would still create a town center, many speakers were passionate that this is not the right time for the project.

Resident Joel Rogers said he did not understand why, when the town just moved all its schools to Woodville Road, it would then move the nearby Town Hall on Falmouth Road to the other side of town.

"You can't even keep this office open five days a week," he said, referring to Town Hall's Monday-Thursday schedule. "You're talking about turning street lights off ... now is not the time."

A significant number of those opposed to the plan cited the current economic situation as the prime reason for their opposition. Others questioned specific aspects of the plan, including a $2 million estimate for repairs to the existing Town Hall, the estimated $3.5 million cost of moving the library to Lunt, and other financial concerns.

Lisa Preney, who, working with former Councilor David Libby, started the group Falmouth Citizens for Sound Choices, said her group has collected 391 signatures asking the council to delay sending the issue to voters until all aspects of the plan can be more thoroughly vetted.

"One hundred percent of the people who signed this (petition) felt they couldn't make an informed vote in November," Preney said, adding in a later interview, "It all seems quite rushed and hectic with multiple unknowns and no time for the public to weigh in ... except for (Monday night). One public meeting on this issue is not enough, in my opinion."

Once the public hearing was closed, the council began its own discussion of the issue, which quickly grew heated and at times, became culpatory in tone.

Councilor Fred Chase began by proposing that the town put three advisory questions on the ballot, the first asking about the Facilities Committee's proposal, the second asking about a public-private partnership and the third asking about selling the Plummer-Motz and Lunt properties for private development.

"I think advisory referendums are not useful, by and large," Councilor Cathy Breen responded. "I don't think they get us anywhere."

Council Vice Chairwoman Teresa Pierce also spoke out initially against three advisory questions, proposing instead a binding bond question.

"Now is the time for the 8,800 members of the town to vote on the direction (the public forums and polls) took us," she said.

Councilor Will Armitage, who has expressed hesitation and concern about the plan in the past, said he would not support the referendum language as it is currently written, emphasizing his disapproval of the plan's price tag.

"We should be able to sit down as a council and come up with a solution without creating the burden I feel, and a lot of citizens feel, this is," Armitage said.

Breen pushed Armitage to present a solution.

"I've heard the same thing over and over again from you," she said. "Develop a proposal. Show me what you're talking about."

Armitage responded that he has tried to reach out to colleagues, but that they have not been available to help him put together a proposal.

Council Chairman Tony Payne, who initially opposed the ballot referendum, surprised many by supporting sending the bond and advisory questions to the voters in November.

"This is the biggest survey we can get. We won't see that number (of voters) again until 2012," Payne said.

As the 11 p.m. hour approached, a majority of the councilors came to a consensus to ask staff to prepare wording to send the facilities committee's plan and a binding $2.5 million borrowing proposal to voters as Question 1, along with one or two advisory questions asking about public-private partnerships or selling the properties.

After the meeting, Preney expressed frustration.

"The council discussion was far from unanimous," Preney said. "Fred (Chase), Will (Armitage) and Faith (Varney) were not certain that the direction the council is taking is the best. Overall, it was quite unsettling."

On Tuesday, Payne said while he personally does not support borrowing or using undesignated funds to pay for the project, he wants voters to have their say.

"We were at an impasse with six councilors in attendance," he said. "I believe having this question come before the largest number of voters possible is the right decision. I am also hopeful, though, that it will be rejected."

The council will hold a special meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m. to work on the advisory question language and will vote on the referendum language at its meeting on Sept. 13.

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