FALMOUTH — The developer of the proposed Falmouth Center project has hit the pause button following continued public pushback and uncertainty over whether the Town Council would approve a requested zone change.
During two public forums on the project, one in June 2018 and one on Jan. 14, the majority of citizens who spoke were opposed, particularly to its size, scope and probable impacts, including light and noise pollution and increased traffic.
Then, at their Jan. 28 meeting, councilors failed to reach consensus on the proposal, which would lead to substantial redevelopment of the Falmouth Shopping Center along with about 11 acres of state-owned land on Route 1 near the Maine Turnpike spur.
As proposed, the project calls for a sports complex with indoor and outdoor fields, a hotel, housing, retail, restaurants and more, including a village green. Overall, it would include 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 mixed-use concept.
Cohen, who has taken the lead in pursuing the project, on Monday said he doesn’t know what his next steps will be.
“I’m trying to evaluate what to do,” he said, “but I can tell you I have no plans for the immediate future.”
Cohen expressed some frustration with the process, which councilors candidly admitted last week did not leave any room for dialogue or the exchange of ideas between Cohen and the town.
Most of the opposition to Falmouth Center seemed focused on the sports complex, which Cohen said would be operated by the Seacoast United club. On Monday he said Seacoast still believes Falmouth is the best location for its soccer program.
While councilors couldn’t seem to agree on how best to approach the Falmouth Center project last week, they did ask Town Manager Nathan Poore to reach out to Cohen to encourage him to review the proceedings.
On Feb. 2, Poore issued a statement that Cohen “has not indicated any plans to request this item be placed on a future Council agenda.”
“I relayed the council message to (Cohen) on Jan. 29 and asked him to provide feedback after reviewing the meeting,” the statement said. “At that time, he said he needed more time to think about his options.”
“We spoke again on Feb. 1 and his response was unchanged. He reiterated that he needs more time to think about his options and understands that the Town Council is concerned with current aspects of the proposed development,” the statement continued.
Over the weekend, Council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said he interpreted Poore’s message to mean that Falmouth Center will not come back to the council unless requested by Cohen.
“I don’t know where we’ll end up ultimately,” Hemphill said, “because the developer has not indicated where he’s going. The ball is now firmly in his court. The Town Council is now waiting on him.”
Hemphill, who has indicated that he felt any negative impacts from Falmouth Center could be mitigated, said despite the criticism from some members of the public, the council was only doing its job when it entertained the zoning change sought for the development.
“All of us on the council are only interested in doing good things for Falmouth,” he said. “We all want to do the right thing for Falmouth.”
But Neal Kolterman, an abutter to the Falmouth Shopping Center and a critic of the Falmouth Center proposal, on Monday said he hopes the entire project is now off the table.
He said if Cohen comes back with only a “slightly tweaked” version of the plan “our (neighborhood) groups will be organized and ready to review it. We just hope the council would have the good sense to not put the town and residents through this again.”
While Cohen feels the same 40-50 people keep appearing at meetings to oppose Falmouth Center, Kolterman said there is actually “a coalition of diverse groups actively (engaged in fighting it) from all across town.”
He said “many residents are frustrated” that the Town Council continued to discuss Falmouth Center without having all the impact studies it had requested and which many residents felt would be instrumental.
It was only during the Jan. 28 meeting “we felt for the first time that many of the councilors actually have heard the residents,” Kolterman said. “… We were encouraged that none of the councilors introduced a zoning amendment to accommodate the developer’s original plan.”
Echoing what many have said at the public forums and at council meetings over the past seven months, Kolterman said “the sheer size and scope of this proposal is not right for Falmouth and will negatively affect the town forever.”
“Creating a town center around the proposed sports complex would primarily serve non-Falmouth residents and invite even heavier traffic along the Route 1 corridor,” he said, “(and) allowing a zone change doesn’t conform to the Comprehensive Plan.”
Whether the debate over Falmouth Center will have any long-term impact on economic development in the town remains to be seen.
In late October 2018, Pamela DiPietro Hale, chairwoman of the Falmouth Economic Improvement Committee, told the Town Council her group was concerned businesses have been getting the message that commercial growth is seen by some as detrimental.
“We continually see pushback for new projects and criticism of individuals who want to improve our community through the development of retail, commercial, and other business projects,” DiPietro Hale said at the time.
Asked to comment on Cohen’s decision to put the Falmouth Center project aside –at least for now – DiPietro Hale on Monday said she had nothing to add, other than “the FEIC supports its position statement as presented” this past fall.
Councilor Andrea Ferrante, who seemed to feel the Falmouth Center project had some merit, as long as the impacts could be adequately addressed, on Monday said she wasn’t necessarily disappointed Cohen had pulled back.
But she also suggested there’s still “a lot he can do” within the current Village Center-1 zone.
She said the lesson learned from the debate is “we really need to look at the process and how we can do it differently on big projects. What’s needed is for people to work together.”
Ferrante also pushed back against those who have criticized the council for considering the zone change sought for Falmouth Center.
“We’re not not listening,” she said, “(and) we’re 100 percent transparent. We need to be considerate and treat fairly anyone who comes to the town with a development proposal.”
Jonathan Cohen, developer of the proposed Falmouth Center mixed-use project, has put the project on hold. Here he speaks at a June 2018 public forum.