FALMOUTH — The Town Council decided not to allow a zone change the developers of the proposed Falmouth Center said they need to ensure the viability of the project.
Instead, councilors on Monday said they’d prefer to follow a master planning process, while acknowledging that will only be possible if the developers are willing to comply.
Developer Jonathan Cohen, who purchased the Falmouth Shopping Center this past spring along with Joseph Soley, could not be reached for comment on the council action prior to The Forecaster’s print deadline.
But in prior interviews and public meetings, Cohen has said the zone change from Business Professional to Village Center-1 is necessary to accommodate the Seacoast United athletic organization, which wants to build two outdoor turf fields and an indoor facility.
Seacoast United is the only announced tenant for Falmouth Center, which Cohen has said would be phased in over several years. In addition to the sports complex, which Cohen has called a key anchor, the project proposes a hotel, residential housing, retail shops and offices, restaurants and a village green.
During a June 25 public forum, many members of the public asked the council to slow the process and opposed the zone change. Many of those people also turned out for a July 3 Planning Board meeting.
At that meeting, the board held a public hearing on the proposed zone change and ended up recommending the council reject the request, based both on the comments the board heard and its own preference for a more global development plan.
At their meeting Monday, councilors also said multiple impact studies are needed before they can feel comfortable moving forward. The proposed studies include light, noise, traffic and water quality, Town Manager Nathan Poore said.
Cohen has proposed more than 400,000 square feet of new development on 40 acres near the intersection of Bucknam Road and Route 1. The closest residential abutters are opposed to the project, which they feel would alter the character of their neighborhood.
Poore on Monday said while Cohen has made it clear “without quick approval of the zone change the project won’t happen,” that shouldn’t stop the council from taking steps to move forward if they feel the development has potential.
He also said the Business Professional and Village Center-1 zones are “very different,” particularly in terms of the allowed uses. For instance, no residential housing, restaurants or retail can be built in the Business Professional zone, which bisects the development site.
“I would not be inclined to support the piecemeal zoning in front of us” Councilor Amy Kuhn, who is newly elected to the council, said, adding there “are so many unanswered questions that I can’t commit to a time frame.”
Kuhn, like the other councilors, said she prefers a master planning process, which would include “enforceability and accountability. I’m willing to work hard, but a lot needs to be done and this can’t be rushed.”
Chairman Caleb Hemphill agreed and said for “such a large and important project” he would not be comfortable proceeding “without more definition. I’m (certainly) warming up to a master plan idea,” which, he said, would provide “serious and effective review.”
Councilor Aaron Svedlow said he is also in favor of “doing this properly,” but wonders whether the developers are willing to work through a master plan process that could likely take several months.
Ethan Croce, the town’s community development director, said a master plan could be as minimal or as specific as the council wants. He used the Tidewater Farm master plan as an example, saying with that document, a prior council had dictated everything down to individual floor plans for each building.
“To some extent, a master plan can be whatever you want it to be,” he said. “So, the biggest question is, what does the council most wish to regulate.”
Croce and Poore also said with a master planning process the council would be free to call for the input and recommendations of other town boards and committees, including the Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee or Conservation Commission.
Toward the end of Monday’s meeting Poore suggested the council consider hiring a facilitator who could help direct dialogue and discussion between councilors, town staff, and representatives from the various boards and committees.
Councilors seemed to like that idea, saying they’d be willing to consider naming a facilitator at their July 23 meeting. However, that will only move forward if Cohen and Soley agree to the development of a master plan.
Hemphill said he hopes the developers will consent to a process that “offers a solution to moving forward in good faith,” as well as a way to “offer good solutions to the challenges we’re facing.”
This diagram shows the proposed Falmouth Center mixed-use development, including a new location for the outdoor turf fields.