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Residents say Falmouth ignores public concerns on workforce housing

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Residents say Falmouth ignores public concerns on workforce housing

FALMOUTH — Some residents say the town is failing to provide information about workforce housing just as the Town Council is about to consider committing more money to the project.

"We are not looking to rally the troops and be against the town, but every time we have questions it seems like it's a combative scenario," Patty Weber, of Aster Lane, said Monday. "It feels like the same thing as (school) consolidation meetings – there's no information being put out to the public."

Weber, who said she is "supportive of affordable housing," is one of a small group of residents that has attended some of the Workforce Housing Commission meetings. Several meetings ago, she said, a few of the residents asked questions of the commission that were never answered.

"The workforce housing group thought our questions were valid and good and said they'd get back to us and they haven't," she said.

Falmouth has been considering workforce housing for the past four years. A year ago the town sought proposals for a Woods Road site behind the police station, and approved proposals from Developers Collaborative and Portland Builders on recommendation from the commission. Their design consists of a total of 48 units made up of condominiums, multi-family and single-family homes.

The council will hold a public hearing on the proposal on Monday, May 11, at 7 p.m.

Richard Coughlin of Woodlands Drive, who called workforce housing a "euphemism for low-income housing," said he doesn't think "this particular plan is well-conceived" and that costs are "shrouded in guesswork." But he said the bigger issue is that the process, while open, has not been inclusive.

Though he said he supports affordable housing in Falmouth, Coughlin said he still wants to know why the town isn't considering renovation of of existing town-owned buildings, like the soon-to-be-vacated Lunt and Plummer-Motz schools, rather than clearing open space and building new homes.

Coughlin said the proximity of the Woods Road development to his community, The Woodlands, has nothing to do with his position.

"I don't think anybody I've talked to at The Woodlands is opposed to it because it's next door," he said. "We've accepted we're across from the town dump. ... I don't buy it – it's a lazy person's argument against what's going on."

Coughlin said he also questions why the town has chosen to cluster the homes instead of decentralizing them, which could avoid a label of low-income housing. And he has asked why the council decided on home ownership to begin with, rather than affordable apartments that he said would avoid the potentially complicated process of selling the subsidized units.

As he spoke, he hinted at talk of a lawsuit over the concept of "workforce" housing discriminating against retirees or disabled veterans, who might have the resources to afford the units, but no income.

He also said he is very concerned that the council is being given only one choice by the commission, without input from residents.

The town has spent about $5,000 so far on workforce housing, the director of long-range planning, Theo Holtwijk, said Tuesday – including about $3,000 on vernal pool assessment last year and $2,000 for consultant Jim Damicis.

"All the work the developer has done on the site plan is on the developer's nickel," Holtwijk said.

Next Monday, the council will be asked to approve about $20,000 to proceed with the next steps of the project, Town Manager Nathan Poore said Tuesday. The amount would cover preliminary engineering at the Woods Road site and a market study. The town will also look at the compliance with the vernal pools and natural resources, but that will be done in-house at no extra cost, Poore said.

"We are in the middle of working out the conditions of the agreement for the town to consider next Monday and waiting for a response from the developer," he said.

The town is proposing a shared-commitment with the developer, Poore said, with the town only on the hook for half, or $10,000, of the cost if it decides to pull out of the deal.

Most likely, the project will be put to a vote at some point because the town will likely need to appropriate more than $1 million, which requires a referendum, Poore said. Right now, the cost  is in the range of $1.2 million to $1.6 million. While the referendum could happen as soon as this fall, Poore said that is unlikely.

If councilors choose to move the project forward, Holtwijk said there are many details still to be addressed and worked through with input from the public. He said Falmouth would "do something that meets all applicable laws."

In answer to residents' concerns about who would be allowed to purchase the units, Commission Chairman Ward Graffam said there would be no effort to exclude retirees or disabled veterans.

"The focus had been on workforce – let's provide opportunities for those folks who work in our town, but can't afford to live in our town," he said. "But that was not in any means to exclude the folks. ... It is not the intention to restrict; there is the intention to meet a need."

The commission considered home ownership instead of apartments to help integrate residents into the community, Graffam said. While apartments are often associated as transitional,  the commission wants to "provide to those that might not have had the ability to have anything but an apartment."

Graffam acknowledged there are unanswered questions, but said the commission is still focused on the "macro piece." He said the reason the town looked at the Woods Road site was because it was available and "ready to go."

"(Lunt and Plummer-Motz) have been discussed as great potential sites going forward, but aren't available today," Graffam said. "Maybe for the next phase of workforce housing."

Councilor Dave Libby, who has been involved in the process from the beginning, said Monday that "every single meeting always had a part for public comment. Their questions have absolutely been answered."

"There are people in town that just don't want 'those types of people' in town," Libby said. "But 'those types of people' are people who have grown up in Falmouth like me, like our public and town employees."

Libby said he looks at the Woods Road project as one of several potential workforce housing developments in Falmouth and said Lunt and Plummer-Motz are possibilities for the future, too.

"This isn't the end of workforce housing," he said. "It's the beginning."

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.

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