Falmouth weighs solution to housing density question

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council may have reached a fairly simple solution to the density issues that led to adoption of a moratorium on residential development in the town’s new growth districts earlier this month.

But councilors in a workshop Monday also agreed there may be larger policy issues at work that could be addressed at the same time, including a more defined housing vision.

Other issues discussed Monday included whether to limit the location of two-family and multifamily housing – for example, they could be restricted to in-fill lots only – and whether to create a zoning provision that would allow “houseominiums.”

The council is set to hold further discussions during a workshop at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 11.

Several residents attended this week’s meeting but no public comment was allowed.

Looking at the density bonus calculations that inadvertently created an incentive to build multifamily homes in town, Councilor Andrea Ferrante asked if the solution might not be to simply equalize the net residential area allowed per unit.

Most Councilors agreed this would be a good first step, but also said they wanted to see how it would play out on the ground.

So, Ethan Croce, the town’s community development director, has been tasked with creating a rough sketch under two scenarios.

One would be a development with equal lot sizes and the other would have proportional lot sizes, which Councilor Aaron Svedlow said would still encourage a diversity of housing types as outlined in the Comprehensive Plan.

Looking at the 32-unit Tuscan Way project off Blackstrap Road – opposition to which led to the development moratorium – Town Manager Nathan Poore said under the proportional calculation suggested by Svedlow, 21 units would be allowed and under equalization a further reduction in the number of units would result.

While Croce said “it’s impossible to know for sure” what led to the increase in two-family and multifamily development projects being proposed, it’s likely the ordinance changes made in July 2016, which tripled the density bonus, was a primary factor.

However, he also noted that other ordinance amendments made at the same time removed several restrictions on two-family and multifamily housing, including no longer requiring such projects to go to before both the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Planning Board for approval.

While still unsure how to best accomplish it, Councilors continued to support the goal of encouraging different types of housing in town.

Councilor Karen Farber, who was a member of the Community Development Committee when the new density rules were first being discussed, said Monday “there was a clear wish to protect” rural areas from development.

That led, she said, to the goal of trying to shift development from rural to growth areas. But, Farber added, there were clearly consequences that “were not fully appreciated at the time.”

“Another prong,” she said, “was to provide diversity in the housing stock that would allow for different types of living arrangements not addressed by typical single-family housing.”

“What we wanted,” Farber said, “was variety and to discourage the rate of development in rural areas. It was too easy to focus on one thing and miss the other.”

But Farber also noted that the committee wanted to increase the likelihood of in-fill development, not see large tracts of undeveloped land being proposed for new compact housing projects.

Councilor Claudia King agreed and said, “Initially we were thinking of in-fill development on small lots and so it seemed appropriate to allow greater density.”

Town Manager Nathan Poore remembered that allowing for in-fill development was a key goal for the Community Development Committee, but he also recalled asking what would happen with the remaining undeveloped lots in town.

“You may need to look at two sets of rules,” he told the Council Monday. The question, he said, seems to be “what is the threshold that triggers too much change in a neighborhood?”

Poore also suggested the Council address the rate of growth, which some residents may be equating with density, by further restricting housing development on larger, open lots.

In addition, Ferrante noted, “the growth areas may not be where people like to see them, so we owe it to the public to have a wider discussion.”

But Svedlow said the Council should “focus on what is the problem we’re trying to fix? Is there some lever we can pull?”

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

Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore, left, and Ethan Croce, community development director, help guide discussion on housing density calculations during a Town Council workshop Monday, Nov. 27.