Falmouth council calls special meeting to deal with zoning error

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FALMOUTH — Town councilors admit they made a mistake approving a sweeping series of zoning amendments designed to encourage a variety of housing types.

The question now is how to fix it.

Councilors will hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the best way to correct what Councilor Karen Farber described Monday as a bias in favor of two- and multi-family dwellings in the town’s new growth districts.

The council also set a public hearing for 7 p.m. Oct. 23 on a proposal to extend the Tidewater Farm development master plan for another year.

Farber said in approving the zoning changes, the council was “intentional” in a move to encourage more housing choices in Falmouth, but also said, “In hindsight, we probably made a mistake in doing so.”

“The intent is still good, but we leapt too far, too fast,” she added at Monday’s regularly scheduled council meeting. “(What’s become) really clear is that Falmouth is almost exclusively single-family and that character is clearly important.”

Councilor Aaron Svedlow agreed, saying the current zoning is “clearly a problem and we do need to address it.”

Councilors then wrestled with how to craft an amendment to eliminate the bias. That’s when Town Manager Nathan Poore suggested Wednesday’s special meeting.

He said it was important to meet as soon as possible if the council intended to apply the changes to the zoning ordinance retroactively, as it could impact several development proposals already in the pipeline.

The proposed Tuscan Way development at 80 Blackstrap Road is the furthest along in terms of Planning Board approval, with possible final approval for the project coming in early November.

That project is also being opposed by neighbors, some of whom showed up at Monday’s meeting to ask that the council put a stop to what they perceive as an out-of-place proposal to bring 32 units to a less-than-3-acre site.

Both Svedlow and Farber objected to applying any zoning change retroactively, but they were overruled by their colleagues, including Councilor Claudia King, who earlier this month called for a moratorium on any new two- or multi-family housing developments.

“Our zoning doesn’t look like we intended,” King said Monday. “A moratorium would not be inappropriate because we made a mistake (and) what we’ve done has had a marked effect.”

She said if the council still didn’t like the idea of implementing a “limited moratorium,” she would be in favor of applying any zoning fix retroactively.

Chairman Caleb Hemphill and Councilor Andy Jones agreed that going backward might be the best way to avert what Hemphill called “a type of development we’ve not previously experienced.”

“We did do sweeping revisions to the development ordinances,” Hemphill said. “We did not anticipate or intend this result. I think we do need to consider the potential of reaching back.”

He also acknowledged that doing so would “be a big deal to developers who have spent a lot of money. … (But) we owe it to the community (to correct the error).”

Jones said in his view the Tuscan Way project “is not appropriate,” adding, “I do want (increased density) but it needs to be in the right place.”

Councilor Andrea Ferrante was absent Monday and Vice Chairman Ned Kitchel remained largely neutral.

But Kitchel did support holding a special meeting, with time for public input.

“I want to understand the nuances of these changes,” Kitchel said. “These are complex building issues, but I want (whatever we do) to be fair and equitable to all parties, especially the neighbors.”

Wednesday’s special meeting is slated to start at 5:30 p.m., but the time could change, so Poore encouraged residents to check the town’s website.

Tidewater Farm

Poore said finalizing the Tidewater Farm project has taken longer than anyone hoped, but added, “there are only gains and no risk or harm” in extending the master plan process another year.

Amanda Stearns, Falmouth’s community development director, agreed and said that allowing the extension would give “us the opportunity to batten down the hatches” particularly in terms of what would happen with the historic farmhouse and barn on the site.

In support of extending the master plan, Hemphill said, “we are making progress; this is not a stalled effort.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.