Falmouth panel seeks 'middle ground' on natural resource protections

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FALMOUTH — The Community Development Committee has amended the work completed by the Long Range Planning Advisory Committee in its Natural Resources report.

The panel introduced the document, described as an attempt to balance natural resource protections and property owners’ rights, at Monday night’s Town Council meeting.

Councilor Bonny Rodden, chairwoman of the CDC, said the LPAC has been working to update the natural resources ordinance since May 2008 to regulate the protection of vernal pools, upland habitat and wetlands. Its goal was to protect natural resources with a minimum impact to residents.

The LPAC presented an 84-page report in January, and the CDC was charged with reviewing that work and presenting further recommendations to the council.

The town’s current vernal pool protections are more restrictive than the state, and both the LPAC proposal and the CDC recommendations would maintain that level of protection, with some flexibility, Rodden said.

“We are trying to compromise,” Rodden said. “It is very important to protect natural resources, but we have to understand needs of land owners. We made a few changes, but still respect the work of the LPAC.”

The CDC recommendations would add commercial lots to the list of exemptions, delete a notice requirement for abutting property owners, and add language regarding exemptions for compensation.

Community Development Director Amanda Stearns said the current ordinance includes a 50-foot buffer around all vernal pools and a 75-foot setback, whereas the state requires setbacks on only significant vernal pools. The LPAC document would increase the buffer for significant vernal pools to 100 feet, and may allow a 25 percent alteration between 100 feet and 250 feet. The CDC amendments would also remove a 750-foot dimensional standard around vernal pools that would minimize the impact to resources within the area.

“The 750-foot radius becomes more of a design practice and less of a restriction,” Stearns said. “With the proposed amendments, we would continue to regulate vernal pools more stringently than the state, but what the CDC did would increase the buffer to 100 feet and that would hold true to significant vernal pools and wetlands of special significance. We took a step toward better regulation and compromise, and the committee came to this middle ground.”

She said the CDC fully exempted all lots in non-residential districts, and if the districts increased, they, too, would be exempt.

Although there are a few significant changes to the plan, Rodden said the CDC preserved the administrative changes made by LPAC and made a few of the definitions more clear. It maintained the current level of protection for resources unprotected by the state, and mirrored the state regulations for all other resources besides vernal pools where feasible.

“The biggest change between what LPAC wanted to do and what we suggested was to eliminate the areas of concern,” she said. “With all vernal pools and wetlands, LPAC wanted an area of 750-feet maximum as a sensitive area. Since it raised such a huge concern and such fury with land owners who thought it was too restrictive, the CDC got rid of it.”

Rodden said land owners upset by the proposed regulations wanted to be compensated for an expected loss of land, but finding a way to provide that compensation would be impossible as it could open the door for all future zoning concerns.

“It would open a Pandora’s box,” she said.

Even with the additional lot exemptions and compromises amended by the CDC, Councilors Fred Chase and David Libby were not in favor of the proposal.

“I am very concerned about what we are doing,” Chase said. “We need to have a public hearing and encourage land owners to come.”

Councilor William Armitage said because the ordinance is a compromise, no one will ever be completely satisfied.

“We tried to find balance,” he said. “It is not perfect, but it is better than what it was.”

The amended proposal can be viewed on the town’s Web site. There will be a public hearing on the document at the April 12 Town Council meeting, and the Planning Board will vote on April 13. The Town Council is expected to take action on the ordinance at its April 26 meeting.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net