Falmouth residents: Too much growth too fast is a problem

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FALMOUTH — The town’s Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee now has the task of reconciling disparate points of view about growth and density shared at a packed public forum last week.

Among the opinions expressed was that “density is better than sprawl.” But many at the forum, held Nov. 15 at Lunt Auditorium, also decried “massive new developments” and said Falmouth is a place where “neighbors need (and want) breathing room.”

The forum was promised by councilors last spring after a citizens’ petition seeking to overturn the creation of the growth districts was signed by 869 registered voters.

Much of the opposition to the growth districts, which were first created in the summer of 2016, had to do with increased demand and strain on the town’s schools and municipal services, and two proposed housing projects, including a contract zone in West Falmouth that’s since been withdrawn.

Council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said last week’s public forum was just the first step in a process to review the creation of the growth districts in Falmouth’s commercial and mixed use centers.

He said one of the primary goals of behind the growth districts was the desire to keep the character of the town’s rural areas, while accommodating a perceived need for more diverse types of housing.

“We’re here to listen and learn as much as possible,” Hemphill told the standing-room-only crowd.

The forum was facilitated by Craig Freshley of Good Group Decisions, who said the purpose of the forum was “all about listening. We’re not here to reach any conclusions.”

He said the meeting presented “a truly blank slate and we don’t know yet what will rise to the top.”

Among the themes that developed were the impact of growth on school capacity, open space, neighborhood character, traffic, taxes and property values.

“I can tell that density has the most energy and interest here tonight,” Freshley said as residents tried to answer the questions he put to them, such as “how many is too many?,” “what can the infrastructure support?,” and whether there was any justification for allowing increased density in some areas of town.

Several residents said there’s no place for high-density housing in Falmouth and they argued that any new development should be “done to scale.” Others said there’s been too much growth too quickly.

Another resident also said that with the new growth districts, town leaders were trying to make Falmouth into something it isn’t. “We have a suburban, rural style of living” that many don’t want to see change, he said.

Even so, some in the crowd agreed that there is a need for smaller lot sizes in some parts of town and said they want to see young people and families moving into Falmouth.

The crux of the discussion seemed to be that while several in the crowd liked the concept of more village-like, connected neighborhoods, that’s not what they want to see next door to their own homes.

“This is a beautiful, wonderful town, but 50 more years of growth at this pace would substantially change the character of Falmouth,” one resident argued. Another said he’s “opposed to developers jamming units onto small lots.”

And another resident said there’s no reason the town itself should take on the responsibility of trying to provide all housing types in a range of prices. “If Falmouth doesn’t meet your price range, you can go somewhere else,” he said.

It seems like “you want to preserve what you have. I’m hearing that a lot,” Freshley said.

Others also felt strongly that there had been “a fundamental problem” with the decision-making process, even though the creation of a new Comprehensive Plan took several years and was done with multiple opportunities for public input.

The issue arose when it came to the implementation of the plan’s vision, many at the forum complained.

“The changes that were made were not announced to neighbors,” one resident said. “We were totally unaware of this major change.”

“We’re not saying we don’t want new blood,” one resident said, while another said the town shouldn’t make any zoning changes without understanding “where we’re going and doing an assessment about how the rule changes will impact people.”

The Long-Range Planning Advisory Group will now take all the comments from the forum under advisement before coming back to the public with possible adjustments or fine tuning of the new growth districts and density rules.

Hemphill said that report wouldn’t be ready until early next year, when a second public forum would be scheduled.

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

Craig Freshley, of Good Group Decisions, facilitated a public forum on growth and density in Falmouth last week, where residents had a lot to say.