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Route 1 makeover now in the hands of Falmouth voters

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Route 1 makeover now in the hands of Falmouth voters

FALMOUTH — Town councilors Monday sent a long-debated Route 1 infrastructure improvement and rezoning plan to the public, but not before they heard objections to the inclusion of raised medians in the project.

By a vote of 6-0, the Town Council scheduled the $11.7 million project for a June 11 referendum. Councilor Tony Payne abstained from the vote; he said he didn't feel it was the council's job to recommend such a project.

If approved by voters in June, the Community Development Committee will finalize the plans.

During a public forum, several speakers said the inclusion of raised medians would increase traffic congestion along the road.

“It would cause congestion for people going and coming to work,” said David Boyer, who spoke on behalf of business owner David Jones. “The last thing a Falmouth resident wants to do after work is to fight traffic to get home and relax. The medians are going to cause bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

Skip Shermer, who works in Portland and uses the road on his daily commute, said that he loves the project in general, but does not support the medians.

“I think we have a great town center down there, but I do have one qualm and that is the medians,” Shermer said. “I think the medians will be a mistake. Somehow that triple-lane road really handles traffic there beautifully. I want to put in a bid to not use those islands.”

Councilors did not respond to the comments, but Theo Holtwijk, the town's director of long range planning, said the final decision on the medians will not come until after voters have their say June 11.

“It will be up to the councilors to decide. They have made adjustments to the medians from the original plan, removing a number of them, narrowing them, shortening them and making them flatter,” Holtwijk said. “If voters say yes to expending the money, only then will we go to the next design stage, where you look back at the preliminary plan to say what other adjustments need to be made.”

In addition to discussion on the medians, Bob Hunt, a Foreside Road resident, asked councilors to clarify information on the impact of the project on taxes.

Throughout the process, councilors have told the public that the project will not lead to any property tax increase. But that is contingent on a tax increment financing district being extended to 2030.

At their last meeting, councilors said that if the TIF extension is not approved, the project will be postponed until other funding can be obtained. But Hunt raised the question of what happens if there is a decrease in the funding from the TIF.

In response, Payne offered an amendment to clarify the public's obligation. He said that even though it is “highly unlikely” that the revenue stream from the TIF will be altered in any way, the public should understand that voters are “on the hook” for the cost of the project if it falls through.

His amendment was ultimately rejected by a vote of 5-2, with Payne and Council Chairwoman Faith Varney in the minority.

“I think it is a hypothetical and it raises concern,” Councilor Teresa Pierce said. “I feel like it is really unnecessary and confusing, but I appreciate the comments and understand that people need to know there is a very, very slight risk.”

Councilor Bonny Rodden, chairwoman of the Community Development Committee, which designed the plan, said the amendment might unnecessarily scare some voters into rejecting the plan.

“I am afraid that some of the voters who may not be that familiar with the financial standing of Falmouth will say that they don't want to take any risk because this might effect property taxes down the road,” she said. “That is unfair to this project.”

In other business, councilors unanimously approved the purchase of a new fire truck.

According to a proposal by Fire Chief Howard Rice, the new engine would cost just more than $426,000. Additionally, the department requested that the council approve the purchase of $13,000 in new radio equipment for the department.

Originally, the engine was not slated for purchase until fiscal 2015, but by purchasing now, Rice said, there will be a net savings of approximately $100,000.

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.