Sat, Apr 19, 2014 ●
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Forecaster Forum: To be or not to be: Sensible and business friendly in Falmouth

Opinion

Forecaster Forum: To be or not to be: Sensible and business friendly in Falmouth

Those who point out Falmouth's favorable tax rate (compared, for example, to Cumberland) don't always acknowledge this is because Route 1 and other businesses pay taxes while demanding few public services. We would be crazy to discourage local business, but that is exactly what we keep doing, reflecting what seems to be a bias against freedom in private investment decisions.

Not long ago town officials unsuccessfully tried to prevent WalMart from expanding by enacting an arbitrary limit on the footprint of commercial buildings. Now they are trying to restrict commercial development to 30,000 square feet because, as Councilor Bonny Rodden says, "we don't want" bigger stores and businesses in Falmouth. This will exclude businesses and tax revenues that we might wish to have, and could well cripple efforts to develop the old Shaw's supermarket location.

Route 1 is a natural business corridor and commercial center. Why are we discouraging capital investment there? Other Maine communities, such as Lewiston, have tried to impose the "vision" of downtown planners and councilors with dismal results. Let's not repeat their mistakes.

The proposal to reverse years of planning for already pedestrian-friendly Route 1 by potentially forcing retailers to spend huge sums undoing what previous experts and town officials mandated is more top-down, “we know best” planning. Instead of businesses being set back from the street, the latest expert "vision" is to bring all businesses back to the street, which, they say, will then teem with shoppers and residents lining up to live on floors above businesses and shops. The taxpayer price tag for the grandest vision is a $15 million gamble on becoming “Freeport south” – without the advantage of a world-renowned retailer or commercial floor space to encourage one.

When town leaders deal with actual businesses, they reveal a lack of evenhandedness and civility, as noted in the recent lambasting of TideSmart Global owner Steve Woods over the "beautiful," but non-conforming sign he installed. Self-proclaimed "business-friendly" Councilor Chris Orestis attacked Woods, saying he wanted the town to "hurt him." Then, sadly, Orestis sarcastically mocked Woods' political ambitions. Evidently, Orestis thinks our civility code censors only citizen comments, not insults by Falmouth councilors. The council's rude and insulting treatment of Woods has now apparently led to his decision to invest his capital somewhere else.

In June, Orestis and others supported spending $36,000 on OceanView's feasibility study, until citizens persuaded a majority this was unwise. Falsely claiming the town had an "obligation" to OceanView, Orestis insulted the councilors who voted against his position. Now the council has agreed to spend $15,000 of taxpayer money to pay for a natural gas service study. The utility is fighting tooth and claw against competitors to expand its territory and doubtless can pay for the study itself.

We are sending mixed messages to the business community. Published reports have shown business leaders are skeptical of the impact of size limits and other Route 1 changes on their business prospects. Yet the council is rapidly moving toward the Route 1 boondoggle at an estimated cost of $5 million to $15 million in public money.

Councilors are hustling the town toward a "partnership" with OceanView, even though, contrary to Orestis' statements, there is absolutely no commitment in the sale agreement for the town to enter any public/private partnership, let alone incur public expenditures. Relocating the Falmouth Memorial Library, an idea rejected by voters a year ago, apparently will be part of the "partnership," setting Falmouth Corners up for “mini-sprawl” by tearing out the heart of its existing town center to move three-quarters of a mile away. That's inconsistent with making Route 1 into a village center.

Falmouth’s small-town feel would be better preserved, with the library’s historic and central location, by creating community facilities where private interests were ready to do just that a few years ago – until certain town councilors shot them down. Land near Family Ice, the farmers market, American Legion and the Little League complex was designed to have walking paths to the shopping areas and to each other. A couple of crosswalks in residential neighborhoods (with its 25 mph speed limit), similar to walkways that connect the high school and its sports fields, make best economic, business and cultural sense.

Bryan Dench is a Falmouth resident, attorney and former candidate for Town Council.