FALMOUTH — In light of recent controversial development proposals, the Town Council agreed in principle Monday that it needs to review how it handles large projects.
Councilors also discussed the possibility of implementing a new set of rules or procedures to help review big projects, but said they’re not ready to commit to any particular course of action.
The hope is that the council can get guidance and discuss the issue at its planned retreat in March.
Councilor Ted Asherman said it’s “obvious that the pace of growth has accelerated” in Falmouth and “it’s not going away. Falmouth is a great place to live and people are finding that out. Our challenges are only going to get greater the more desirable we become.”
And, Asherman said, it would be better if the town wasn’t “in crisis mode with its back to the wall all the time.”
Councilor Aaron Svedlow said the “real issue” with several of the most controversial developments – including a contract zone that initially called for up to 151 new residences in West Falmouth and the mixed-use Falmouth Center proposal on Route 1 – is that “they’re nonconforming.”
In other words, he said, the developers “want something different than what’s allowed” under current zoning. Therefore, he implied, the council has been within its rights to ask questions and take into account public sentiment when evaluating such requests.
“Democracy can be pretty messy at times and it’s tough when we’re faced with a disconnect between some policies and where town residents want to be,” Svedlow said.
However, he also said the town has a responsibility to ensure that development proposals receive “due process.” Svedlow said he is not sure what that looks like yet, but did suggest the town could at least provide developers with a list of best practices to follow.
For him that would include “having the first conversations about a (project) at the kitchen table and not at the council level,” he said.
In opening the discussion Monday, Chairman Caleb Hemphill asked if the council must further evaluate or reconsider zoning in the growth areas. “Do we need more community engagement in land use decisions,” he said. “Do we need a review of our process?”
From her perspective, Councilor Hope Cahan said, “we do need to make it a little more predictable for everybody” when reviewing large proposals. Overall, she said, “we need to set the ground floor and say this is the process we follow when all large projects come through (the door).”
Councilor Andrea Ferrante called the current process “painful and difficult,” not only for councilors and residents, but for developers, as well. She said before any hard and fast rules are adopted, “we need to get a really high-level view of who we are and what we want” as a community.
Ferrante said it’s “definitely time to relook at the systems and the process,” which she said leaves out various parts of the community. “Right now we only hear from the opposition, every time.”
Councilor Claudia King said the debate over the contract zone for West Falmouth and the Falmouth Center project “felt very adversarial,” and while each project had its own unique difficulties, a common thread was transparency and better communication.
“I feel in all these cases if we could have engaged the public earlier it would have been helpful,” King said. She added that a joint workshop between the Planning Board and Town Council, which the public could attend, might be a better way of introducing large developments.
Hemphill said what he’s seen is “persistent concerns about our schools, more traffic, environmental impact and the character of our town. I think these issues will continue to be central to any big project. … (But) we can’t keep saying no, we need to keep engaging.”
Councilor Amy Kuhn said “people have felt very disenfranchised, so it’s important that we get it right this time.”
In summing up what he heard councilors saying, Town Manager Nathan Poore said, “We’re in the very early stages of defining the problems and we need a process to figure out the process.”