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FALMOUTH — Town councilors say it’s time to hear from the public again on the proposed mixed-use Falmouth Center development.
They’ve scheduled a special time for public comment at their next meeting on Monday, Jan. 14. The start time for the meeting has been moved up to 6 p.m., but it could start even earlier.
While residents have been emailing and calling councilors to share their opinion about the project, which could bring a sports complex, hotel, senior housing, restaurants, retail and more to the Falmouth Shopping Center on Route 1, there’s been no chance for collective public input since the summer.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve heard directly from the public and we need to hear from them before we move forward,” council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said at a special meeting on Dec. 20.
“I think it’s only fair to hear from the public, since we’ve covered a lot (in recent workshops) and this is a very complicated project with a lot of details and issues, so it’s important that we thoroughly evaluate (all the options).”
The council hasn’t received direct public comment since mid-July when it denied a request by Falmouth Center developer Jonathan Cohen for a zone change that would have covered only the sports complex, which would house two outdoor playing fields and one indoor field.
Cohen is now seeking a zone change for the entire 40-acre parcel near the intersection of Bucknam Road and Route 1, where he hopes to build more than 400,000 square feet of new development in phases over the next several years.
Cohen and business partner Joseph Soley purchased the Falmouth Shopping Center for $21 million last spring and soon after announced an ambitious redevelopment plan.
The key to the project, according to Cohen, is the sports complex, which would be operated by Seacoast United, the only announced tenant for Falmouth Center. The development site is now bisected by the Village Center-1 zone and the Business Professional zone.
Sports fields and an associated indoor facility are allowed as a conditional use in the VC-1 zone, but not in BP, which is why Cohen originally hoped to simply move the VC-1 district line over enough to cover the sports complex.
While councilors like some aspects of the proposed Falmouth Center project, particularly a village green and the walkability aspect, along with some of the retail and restaurants, they’ve continually expressed concerns about the sports facility.
For instance, at the Dec. 20 meeting, Councilor Amy Kuhn said, “A lot of people don’t want a village center built around elite soccer. That’s not an identity many in town want to be linked to.”
In order to accommodate the sports complex, Cohen has asked for several special concessions, including 80-foot light poles and allowing outdoor play until 10 p.m., both of which have been problematic for councilors.
In addition, last week and at other recent meetings on Falmouth Center, councilors have continued to voice reservations about moving forward on a zone change for the entire parcel without some guarantee that facilities other than the sports complex would be built.
“It’s entirely possible we could get the soccer complex and not the other stuff,” Kuhn said last week, while Councilor Andrea Ferrante said, “the only thing we know for sure is that there’s a 99 percent chance of the soccer fields being built.”
Although Cohen did present what he called “Plan B” for the development last week, it was only designed to show what could now be built under current zoning.
Hemphill said the alternative proposal is not the “preferred option,” adding Cohen provided it at the specific request of a few councilors who wanted to know what could happen if the council did not approve the zone change Cohen is seeking.
Plan B shows a couple of light manufacturing and warehouse uses, along with an office building, sports fields, residential uses and a few more retail buildings fronting Route 1.
The council spent no time discussing the alternative development plan last week and seemed to be still stuck on the best way to control the way Falmouth Center is developed and its possible impacts, including increased traffic.
This summer the council discussed the possibility of requiring a master plan for the development at great length, but recently the focus has been on creating a new zone that would best encompass Cohen’s vision.
Again last week, though, several councilors discussed the potential of a master plan, with Ferrante saying the development could end up looking entirely different from Cohen’s current proposal without the protection of a master plan.
But Hemphill and Councilor Claudia King feel strongly that a master plan is not the way to go.
“I know it’s important how this plays out, but we’ve had a lot of trouble with the Tidewater master plan, for example, and I don’t see the advantage of the council sitting on this (development) in perpetuity.”
King said the council should have confidence that the new zone being created by staff would be “adequate to meet our overall objectives for a vibrant service center.”
A south-looking aerial view over Falmouth’s Route 1 commercial area, with the Falmouth Shopping Center at left.