Falmouth residents call for housing moratorium, referendum on growth

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FALMOUTH — Debate over a moratorium that would temporarily halt construction of two-family and multifamily homes has now turned into a tug of war over the long-term development vision for the town.

While the Town Council has admitted it made an error by unintentionally favoring one type of housing development over another, councilors on Monday reiterated their commitment to new growth districts and the goal of developing diverse types of housing.

Those goals, however, have hit a wall in recent weeks. Residents at council meetings have supported a moratorium that would retroactively prevent some housing developments from being built at least until the density bonus formula can be reworked.

In addition, on Monday resident John Winslow announced the creation of a citizen’s petition that seeks to overturn the ordinance changes made in July 2016 that created the growth districts and were designed to implement the town’s revised Comprehensive Plan.

The goal of the growth districts was two-fold, according to town leaders: To limit development to designated areas, leaving the more rural areas open, and to allow increased densities that would make building different types of housing more attractive to developers.

But in an interview Tuesday, Winslow said “people in town are very, very concerned and upset with the actions of the Town Council.”

He said there are lots of people who don’t share the vision of growth districts and increased density because they feel two-family and multifamily projects simply don’t fit with the character of Falmouth.

There are also serious concerns, Winslow said, about increased traffic and increased enrollment in the town’s schools.

He and others have argued over the past month or so that impact studies should have been done before the growth districts were created.

Winslow needs 808 signatures from registered Falmouth voters to force a referendum on rescinding or repealing the growth districts.

Town Clerk Ellen Planer said Tuesday that Winslow and his allies would have until April 30, 2018, to get the referendum on next June’s ballot.

But Winslow doesn’t believe he’ll need that long.

He predicted it will take a month or less to gather the number of signatures needed and said after he announced the citizen petition at the Oct. 23 council meeting, people began approaching him from all over town to sign.

“This shows just how upset people are,” Winslow said. “They’re asking why the council is pushing such a horrible agenda. Something had to be done.”

Winslow said residents are objecting to the creation of the new growth zones mostly because the Town Council didn’t do “its due diligence, especially in terms of the impact” on municipal services.

Councilors Monday said the Comprehensive Plan revision was a long and involved process that included many opportunities for public input.

“This did not happen overnight. This was at least a six-year process,” Councilor Karen Farber said. “Every resident received two mailings and there were multiple public forums and meetings in front of the TV cameras.”

Farber and Councilor Claudia King, who was part of the Comprehensive Plan process, also argued Monday that the idea of growth districts is not the issue they’re attempting to address with the development moratorium.

“Growth districts as a concept are not flawed,” Farber said. “It’s just this one piece,” related to the density bonus formula, “that we’re trying to fix.”

“With the Comprehensive Plan we saw the need for all types of housing,” she added. “We wanted to make (different options) attractive, but we ended up in a situation where two-family and multifamily leapfrogged and now we’re just looking for equilibrium.”

King said “one of the objectives of the Comprehensive Plan process was to get diverse housing that reflects today’s families. We set it up as best we could, but the incentive for two-family and multifamily was not our intention.”

She also said that while the Town Council is aware the new zoning has impacts on individuals, it’s the overall future development pattern that most concerns councilors.

But most of the 20 or so people who spoke Monday were in favor of the development moratorium and the majority also called on the council to make it retroactive.

Specifically they want to prevent construction of two projects proposed for Blackstrap and Middle roads.

Resident Ron Dearth seemed to sum up the mood in the room Monday when he called on the council to “hit the pause button and put the brakes” on any development in the new growth districts.

“Listen to your constituents and the taxpayers,” Dearth said, while arguing that all residents want is a “more sensitive and nuanced approach” to residential development. Dearth also told the council that its duty is “first do no harm.”

The council is set to hold a final vote on implementing the moratorium at its Nov. 13 meeting. It is also expected to decide whether to make it retroactive.

But attorney Michael Traister, representing developer Jim Cummings, whose Tuscan Way duplex project kicked off much of the protest over the new growth districts, said the council doesn’t have “unfettered authority to impose a moratorium.”

He said in order to justify the temporary delay, the council must show there is an emergency situation or imminent public harm and he said the Tuscan Way project doesn’t rise to that level.

Traister also argued that Cummings has followed all the rules set out by the new ordinances, which were “only set after a public process” and after the council made “decisions for the public benefit.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Falmouth’s zoning map includes the designation of new residential growth districts. The districts were created as part of a Comprehensive Plan revision, but now residents are calling on the Town Council to make changes.