Council chairman's poll shows little support for Falmouth town center proposal

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FALMOUTH — Town Council Chairman Tony Payne does not believe a proposal to create a town center by moving the library and Town Hall to the Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools is a good idea – and apparently he’s not alone.

This spring the town surveyed 95 people during a public meeting where a plan to renovate the school buildings and create a town center was unveiled. The poll found a strong majority favored the plan.

The town then followed that up with an online poll, which elicited 498 responses. It showed a smaller majority supported the plan.

Neither poll included project costs, although an e-mail sent out with the poll included a link to a video of the public meeting, which did include cost summaries.

“The process of the facility committee polls never included the question, ‘do you want to raise taxes to move the Town Hall and library to the school properties?,'” Payne said.

So, when he asked those who subscribe to his e-mail newsletter to fill out a survey of his own creation, he included a reference to the proposed $4 million bond to cover the costs, and asked if respondents approved of raising taxes to pay for the plan.

Payne’s survey found that 80 percent, or 103 people, did not.

“Clearly people did not want to spend more money for this enhancement,” he said.

Facilities Planning Committee member Steven Tenney took issue with Payne’s methodology.

“Part of it is attributed to the audience that receives Tony’s e-mails,” Tenney said. “You can’t tell me it’s a politically neutral or diverse group that receives his e-mails.”

Tenney admitted that those who attended discussions and then filled out the surveys were an equally selective group, and that he was not surprised they strongly supported the plan.

“However, the e-mail survey after the charette was somewhere in between,” he noted. “It wasn’t as strong as the charette, but they still said, ‘yeah, that’s a good idea.'”

Tenney, who has worked with the committee since 2008 to put together the proposal, said the plan might not be perfect, but that it’s the best way to resolve space constraints at the library and energy inefficiencies at Town Hall.

Payne and Councilor Fred Chase would like to see the town explore the possibility of selling the school properties for private development.

“I’m looking for some middle ground,” said Chase, who expressed concern during the most recent council meeting that the building appraisals were overstated and the construction costs understated.

“I don’t think the committee was looking for middle ground,” he said. “My primary goal is to get a proposal from OceanView or someone else, and get (the properties) on the tax rolls.”

Payne said he would also like to see the entire property put onto the tax rolls to help offset the costs of building the new elementary school and, what he believes will be a $1.2 million curtailment of state and federal funding next year.

“There’s a light in the tunnel and it’s an oncoming train,” Payne said. “I don’t think the voters are tuned into that.”

The recommended $4 million bond is contingent upon the sale of the current Town Hall for $1.25 million, the current library for $1.25 million, nearly 10 acres of undeveloped land at Plummer-Motz for $1.75 million and Pleasant Hill Fire Station for $190,000. That would return those properties to the tax rolls, generating an estimated $78,000 in new taxes.

The total cost of the renovation and construction is $9.3 million.

“Appraisers use prior sales. Because of what’s going on (in the market) right now, you can’t depend on prior sales. The only valid appraisal is what people will pay for the property,” Payne said.

Theo Holtwijk, the town’s director of long-range planning, said he and Town Manager Nathan Poore are working on several additional reports to provide to the council at its July 26 meeting. The reports will include an independent cost estimate and evaluations and recommendations from several real estate agents on the two town properties that would be sold to offset the costs of construction.

“We are not duplicating the work that has been done,” Holtwijk said. “We are taking a more advanced step.”

In the meantime, some are saying the town has not considered all its options.

Lisa Preney, who was a library trustee until she resigned late last year, said had been frustrated by the board’s unwillingness to explore other options.

“I do think the library needs more space, but it could be a modest expansion on site,” she said, “or opening an annex in West Falmouth or working with the schools. The only option they looked at was to move to Lunt.”

But Tenney said there are issues in renovating the current library space or adding a second floor to the current building, including the support structure needed for heavy stacks of books and the need for more meeting space.

“When you get educated about it, you see there is a very definite space need for the library,” he said. “Really, there aren’t other options that work well.”

Tenney said the committee also explored other options for Town Hall, including renovations, but that the alternatives were more expensive in the long run.

He said consolidating the town’s properties from three to one makes sense.

“The polls showed us there was minimal sentimental feeling toward the Town Hall building, but significant sentimental feeling toward Plummer-Motz and Lunt,” Tenney said. “That helped shape our opinion.”

Councilors Cathy Breen and Teresa Pierce, who are liaisons to the facilities committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]

This story was updated on July 8.