Forecaster Forum: Don't ignore benefits of Falmouth zoning changes

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Attendance at Falmouth’s March 28 public forum to discuss Residential A zoning, and growth and density, was impressive. Unfortunately, for many, one question was left unanswered: What were the reasons behind the 2016 residential zoning amendments that have caused concern in some neighborhoods?

As a town councilor from 2012-2018, I offer this primer.

The 2016 zoning amendments were built upon decades of work and planning: the Greening of Falmouth, the Economic Improvement Committee’s 2015 Economic Development Strategy Report, the 2015 Senior Citizen Advisory Committee report, numerous Comprehensive Plans, and our active Open Space program.

From 2013 to 2016, the council Community Development Committee, the citizen Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, and the council developed zoning proposals, having incorporated public input received during multiple forums, workshops, meetings and hearings. The goals of these proposals were:

• Maintain the character of, and limit residential growth in, Falmouth’s rural areas, where the bulk of single-family residential growth had been taking place. Limited infrastructure in the rural area makes growth expensive – school buses travel farther, more cars burden rural roads that then need repaving and reconstruction. As rural areas become more crowded, residents require sidewalks, bike lanes, and shoulders – all at a cost to the taxpayers.

• Redirect residential growth to areas with infrastructure – water, sewer, mass transit, and/or quick access to highways and interstates.

• Create opportunity for the building of starter homes, workforce housing, and homes to which our older residents can downsize.

• Cut red tape for some homeowners so they can enhance their properties with small construction projects without seeking Board of Zoning Appeals approval.

To achieve this, the council passed amendments making it slightly more difficult to develop land in the rural area and a little easier to develop land in areas with water, public sewer, mass transit, and easy access to interstates, while maintaining the existing growth cap of 65 homes per year.

Two years later, it is clear that developing land outside of the rural area became too easy – in large part because the minimum lot frontage required for new homes was reduced too much.

As the council recalibrates the 2016 residential zoning amendments, let’s not lose track of the amendments’ positive contributions:

• Accessory dwelling units – a.k.a. mother-in-law apartments – are now permitted in every residential zone. No longer do property owners with conforming lots need to seek approval from the BZA.

• A growth cap specific to the rural area, a subset of the town cap of 65, helps maintain Falmouth’s rural character.

• Greater protection for Highland Lake by rezoning to the rural area.

• Elimination of minimum house size means smaller, more energy efficient homes can be built.

• Smaller homes and two-family homes present new opportunities for older residents to downsize, relieving them of the maintenance and tax burdens of a larger home; for our children’s generation to find a starter home in their hometown, and for firefighters, police officers and teachers to afford living in the town they serve.

• Protection of wildlife corridor and habitat through rezoning along Falmouth Road to the Farm and Forest zone.

• Reduction in the number of non-conforming lots, by reducing the minimum lot size and setbacks, means many property owners have been able to add master bedrooms, home offices, bathrooms, decks, etc. without having to seek approval of the BZA.

It is clear that the 2016 residential zoning amendments need improvement, but as the council reviews and likely revises them, it is crucial that the original goals be reaffirmed and the amendments’ many positive effects be retained.

Karen Farber has served on the Falmouth Town Council, School Board and Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee.

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