Council flounders as opposition to Falmouth Center continues

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council tried Monday to clarify where it stood on the proposed Falmouth Center project, but failed to generate consensus.

The workshop followed a well-attended public forum Jan. 14, where the majority of speakers said they opposed the mixed-use project, which would substantially redevelop the Falmouth Shopping Center on Route 1 and require a zone change.

Public comment was not allowed at the Jan. 28 workshop, but residents took advantage of the public forum session at the beginning of the meeting to continue to bash the project.

Valentine Sheldon asked officials to “stop chopping away at the character of our 300-year-old town.”

Another resident urged the council to “stand behind its promises to develop responsibly,” while Ron Dearth said he’s been impressed “by the enormous turnout and overwhelming opposition” to Falmouth Center.

As proposed, the project would include a sports complex with two outdoor fields and one indoor facility, a hotel, housing, retail, restaurants and more, including a village green. Overall, it would have 400,000 square feet of new development.

Business partners Jonathan Cohen and Joseph Solely purchased the Falmouth Shopping Center for $21 million last spring and soon after approached the town with the Falmouth Center proposal.

Dearth said residents don’t want to see a zone change – which is mostly required to accommodate the sports complex that would be operated by Seacoast United – because they feel the current Village Center zone would better “limit the size, scope and impacts we all dread.”

“The zoning change is not welcomed, wanted or needed,” Dearth said. And rather than “letting this purgatory continue,” he asked the council to once and for all reject the zone change and “put an end” to the project.

Abutting property owner Neal Kolterman said, “this proposal is not good enough for our town, so (it’s time) to put the debate to bed.”

But that’s where things got sticky.

While the developers have requested a zone change, there is no draft ordinance on the table. Nor is there a detailed project design for the council to review. What’s been presented so far is a rough sketch of proposed uses in various locations around the property.

Throughout the process, which began last June, the councilors have indicated they would like some control over how the project is developed, but they can’t seem to agree on a mechanism to accomplish that.

Several councilors Monday called for a master plan, while others said they would be OK with a simpler zone change process.

In addition, while councilors seemed to agree this week that the opposition to Falmouth Center is focused on the sports complex, there was no consensus on whether to ask the developers to come back to the table without that element.

Councilors Ted Asherman and Andrea Ferrante, along with Chairman Caleb Hemphill, seemed to think the fields could be accommodated if potential light and noise pollution could be sufficiently mitigated.

Meanwhile, most councilors agreed with the developers that the commercial corridor along Route 1 is the right place for dense, mixed-use development, even though they also acknowledged it would invite more traffic.

By the end of the discussion Monday, the only thing that seemed clear is that councilors have not been happy with the process, which Councilor Hope Cahan said has not allowed “open dialogue.”

That’s when Councilor Amy Kuhn suggested that the best solution would be to start over. “We need a new proposal to get somewhere productive,” she said.

Cohen could not be reached for comment prior to The Forecaster’s print deadline Tuesday, but in prior public statements he has urged the council to leave the details of the development to the Planning Board.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The Falmouth Shopping Center property is bisected by the Business Professional and Village Center zones, which has caused the new owners to seek a zone change that would better accommodate redevelopment.