Falmouth council tackles water view issue

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council on Monday received a proposal to create a Waterview Overlay District in the Foreside and Flats neighborhoods east of Route 88.

It is the first step in a three-phase approach that will be discussed at length in the coming months. 

If approved, all single-family home expansion projects in the district would need a conditional use permit and have to prove the project would not adversely impact neighbors’ water views.

The council has scheduled a March 26 public hearing on the proposal. A second public hearing will be held at the April 6 Planning Board meeting.

Community Development Director Amanda Stearns  said the Town Council in 2006 approved an amendment that required conditional use approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals for the expansion of all single-family homes on non-conforming lots.

The intent was to provide protection for property owners whose water views would be adversely impacted. But the amendment has unintended consequences, Stearns said: Projects in areas of town that do not necessarily have water views must still go to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

“The creation of an overlay district narrows down the requirements to lots that may have a water view,” Stearns said.

Stearns said reverting to pre-2006 requirements in areas outside of the Waterview Overlay District would remove 50 percent of Board of Zoning Appeals agenda items.

The issue was first brought to the attention of the council by F. Jay Meyer, chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals. In an Oct. 19 letter to councilors, Meyer said the issue “has caused some concern and controversy among the board in recent years.”

Meyer told councilors the issue is the lack of a clear standard for interpretation of Section 8.3 of the ordinance, which requires that a conditional use “will not have a significant adverse impact on water views from adjacent and nearby properties and right of ways.”

“The problem lies in determining what level of ‘significant adverse impact’ is enough to preclude (or require modifications of) a proposed conditional use,” he said.

Meyer said board members feel the “significant adverse impact” standard is so ambiguous that it should be repealed or amended to provide greater clarity.

After accepting the request from the Board of Zoning Appeals, the council on Oct. 24, 2011, assigned a review of the issue to the Community Development Committee.

The Community Development Committee developed the three-phase proposal now being considered by councilors. Stearns said the first part of the proposal is the creation of the overlay district.

The second phase would add an administrative process to allow property owners who want to expand their homes to work with town staff to notify abutters. If there are no objections, homeowners would receive a permit without going through the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Stearns said the third phase, which is still being researched, will look at current development and zoning in the overlay district and could reduce lot size requirements to be more in line with the historic nature of the neighborhood. She said she expects that phase of the proposal to be developed and presented to the council in the next two months.

Councilor Fred Chase said he has a problem with creating an overlay district because it “brings in many properties that don’t have a water view.”

Councilor Tony Payne said he has little doubt a review of waterfront zoning is a “thorny issue,” and town officials don’t have a lot of precedent to consider.

Payne, who is chairman of the Community Development Committee, said the committee concluded that while zoning is not the only way to protect water views, the town should have some role in that protection.

Still, Payne said residents who want to protect a water view should pursue easements because it is unknown how future councils might deal with the issue.

“You can buy what you wish to maintain,” he said.

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or ggraham@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.