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FALMOUTH — The Town Council is facing tough questions about how it has handled the committee most responsible for assisting in making zoning decisions, even as it continues to face pressure on growth and density issues.
At a meeting last week, councilors were grilled about membership on the Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, or LPAC, and why they agreed to allow two term-limited members to stay on.
Council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said town rules allow expanded LPAC membership for specific projects related to the Comprehensive Plan, which Town Manager Nathan Poore believes includes the current debate over growth and density.
In defending the decision to allow Sam Rudman and Saundra Lipsey to continue to serve, Hemphill said their service is limited to discussion about possible fixes for what many see as too much residential growth, particularly in the Residential A zones.
But resident Valentine Sheldon on March 11 accused councilors of “flagrantly disregarding the law” and said town ordinances are “very clear” that someone who has served nine years on any board or committee is termed out and “can’t be members, period.”
Sheldon previously pressed the council about whether the town exceeded its growth limit caps in 2016. Municipal officials have said his claim reflects a difference in opinion on how the growth caps are calculated.
Sheldon said he can’t fathom why councilors want to keep Rudman and Lipsey on LPAC, since they played instrumental roles in writing the 2013 revised Comprehensive Plan, a document he called “flawed and contentious.”
He also questioned why LPAC members have been allowed to continue to serve even though they’ve either missed half of scheduled meetings or four consecutive meetings, which he said is also a clear violation of Falmouth’s ordinances.
Sheldon said those members should be removed, but “nobody’s paying attention. How can (LPAC) make informed decisions if people are missing meetings like crazy?” He then argued it’s time for new blood on LPAC.
Poore said the council has expanded LPAC membership twice in recent years, including during the Comprehensive Plan revision process and more recently for the update to the Greening of Falmouth plan.
He said both times the council was “very specific” about what the additional members were assigned to do, and admitted last week that maybe that hadn’t been the case this time.
Poore suggested the council pass a resolution formalizing its intent to allow LPAC to function with two extra members while it continues the discussion about how to address growth and density.
Councilors, however, ended up tabling proposal.
Poore said passing the resolution would have been a way to “clear the air,” but also repeated his belief that the council had the authority to add members to LPAC when it deems it necessary.
Councilor Amy Kuhn, who is a member of the council’s Appointments Committee, said the decision was made to keep Rudman and Lipsey on LPAC because “these folks termed out in the middle of an intense and expedited process” to review the zoning in RA.
Councilor Andrea Ferrante, who chairs the Appointments Committee, agreed and said that everyone involved felt it made sense to for the two to stay on in order to complete the work that was underway.
“It seemed like a very simple thing,” she said.
Kuhn said there was “certainly no attempt to circumvent term limits by any means.”
But Sheldon and others, including Keith Noyes, John Winslow, Bob Hunt and Fred Chase, said that wasn’t good enough, especially when Lipsey has already missed four consecutive meetings this year.
Lipsey reportedly has a personal reason for missing recent LPAC meetings, but neither councilors nor Poore could elaborate.
Following last week’s council meeting, Poore said it’s important to note that “the section of the ordinance that sets attendance standards only applies to boards and commissions. It does not (apply to) committees, which are advisory to the council.”
Even if the attendance rules do cover LPAC, he said, many committees provide flexibility “if there were extenuating circumstances that could be considered excused absences.”
But Poore also said the town attorney is reviewing whether the council has the authority to essentially reappoint members to LPAC even if they’ve reached the limit of their term of office.
Breana Gersen, chairwoman of LPAC, said her committee takes its charge “very seriously and has been working hard with extra meetings” lately to try and develop recommendations to address the growth and density concerns.
“All of the committee members I have worked with are dedicated to our town and the issues before the committee,” Gersen added. “We are all neighbors and we want the best for our community, too.”
The membership issue is not the only problem plaguing LPAC.
As part of its review of the new growth and density rules implemented in the summer of 2016 under the Comprehensive Plan revision, the committee has held one public hearing and it promised another.
However, the original agenda for that second public session, now scheduled for 7 p.m. March 28 at Falmouth Elementary School, only included discussion on a short-term change to lot sizes in RA and not a wider review of the controversial growth and density issues.
LPAC eventually settled on a two-part agenda for the meeting next week. One portion of the agenda invites the public to comment on “growth, density, and development issues in Falmouth,” while the second portion will focus on preliminary recommendations for zoning amendments to the RA district.
The draft proposal is available on the town website at www.falmouthme.org. Those who can’t attend next week’s meeting can contact Theo Holtwijk, Falmouth’s director of long-range planning and economic development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 699-5340.
Sheldon, meanwhile, has created a website critical of Falmouth’s growth policies called Save Falmouth, and sent a flyer to more than 500 residents urging them to make their opinions heard.
In the flyer, Sheldon says “our town is experiencing unprecedented growth due to the reckless rezoning enacted in 2016. Consequently, the school system we are all so proud of, and rely on to provide a top-notch education for our children, is under increasing pressure.”
The flyer also claims that because of the zoning changes made three years ago, Falmouth is experiencing overcrowded schools, higher taxes, lower property values and increased urban density and traffic.