Falmouth councilor denies conflict, council eases development limits

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FALMOUTH — Despite suggestions of a conflict of interest involving one councilor, a sharply divided Town Council on Monday relaxed some rules governing future residential subdivisions.

The Resource Conservation Overlay District rules were first approved five years ago, requiring developers to set aside 50 percent of the buildable area for open space.

Monday’s council action reduces that requirement to 30 percent.

In September 2010, the Planning Board voted 3-1 against the changes. The board’s letter to the council specifically cited the open space requirements as its reason for declining to support the amendment:

“Some board members expressed concern about the magnitude of the changes being proposed, especially with respect to the proposed reduction in the amount of common open space required for conservation subdivisions.”

The Conservation Commission and Long Range Planning Advisory Committee also opposed the changes.

“I think it’s a real setback for people who believe in conservation,” Councilor Bonny Rodden said after the vote. “And it’s a slap in the face to the Conservation Commission, LPAC and the Planning Board.”

The ordinance change was introduced last year by Councilor Fred Chase, who is a real estate developer. Several speakers during a public forum asked Chase to recuse himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest.

“Fred (Chase) is a developer. He benefits financially from this,” said former Conservation Commission Chairman Alan Donald, who asked Chase to recuse himself before the vote. “I don’t think there’s something intrinsically wrong with his bringing this to the council, but he should have been able to convince the council without being the deciding vote.”

Chase defended himself against the charges. He said simply owning land in town does not preclude him from voting on a land-use ordinance change.

“This is ludicrous,” Chase said during the meeting. “I personally intend to vote and don’t feel as though I have a conflict of interest. … If someone owns land in town and they happen to be on the council, those are the people who should be interested in land use.”

Chase said he has a subdivision plan before the Planning Board that fulfills all the requirements of the ordinance at 50 percent of buildable area, and that he would not see financial gain by passing the proposed zoning changes. He admitted he owns other property in town, but said he does not believe that qualifies as a conflict of interest.

Other councilors were skeptical.

“Sometimes even the perception of conflict means there’s a conflict,” Councilor Will Armitage said.

Council Chairman Tony Payne indicated it was up to Chase, not the rest of the council, to decide whether Chase should vote or not.

A motion by Rodden to table the issue until Chase’s situation could be discussed with the town attorney lost 4-3, with Rodden and Councilors Teresa Pierce and Cathy Breen in the minority.

After a motion to send the amendments back to committee also failed, the council voted 4-3, with Rodden, Pierce and Breen opposed, to reduce the open space requirement to 30 percent of buildable area.

“Had I been in his shoes, I would have done everything to avoid the appearance of a conflict,” Rodden said after the meeting. “I would not have voted.”

Route 1 zoning

The council also came to consensus about zoning changes on Route 1.

They agreed to the creation of footprint limitations for new buildings and setbacks much closer to the road than currently allowed in an area including the Falmouth Shopping Center and Walmart plaza, which will be the Village Center 1 zone.

“I would like to see smaller setbacks,” Breen said. “That’s what encourages the slowing of traffic and more pedestrian use.”

While Rodden and Pierce supported a setback of zero to 25 feet, Councilor Faith Varney said she preferred a zero to 55-foot setback.

“I’m more interested in having flexibility,” Armitage added.

Rodden agreed to support up to a 55-foot setback if that was what a majority of the council wanted.

“I want this to happen sooner rather than later,” she said.

The council also found some consensus around approving a footprint limit of 90,000 square feet, which is a larger than the initial Community Development Committee recommendation of 75,000 square feet (approximately the size of the current Shaw’s supermarket building).

“I’ve been fortunate to sit on (the CDC) for two years and I’ve looked long and hard at what’s on Route 1,” Pierce said. “When you hit 90,000 square feet … there’s a tipping point in there that puts you into a different category of businesses.”

The proposed changes will return to the CDC so ordinance amendments can be drafted, then sent to the Planning Board and council for review, public hearing and approval.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net