Falmouth council puts Wal-Mart plan on fast track
FALMOUTH — The Town Council quickly and unanimously approved a $31.7 million school budget Tuesday, setting the stage for a voter referendum on June 10.
But little else came easy during a five-hour meeting marked by contentiousness, the absence of Chairwoman Teresa Pierce, and an abrupt ending at 11 p.m. with several items left on the agenda.
The bulk of discussions centered around three separate, but proximal projects on Hat Trick Drive, two of which require zoning amendments that will bypass the town's typical site review process by the Planning Board because they present unique situations, according to Town Manager Nathan Poore.
Casco Bay Hockey Association presented an update on its plans to construct an open-air, pavilion-style hockey rink near the site of an existing, largely abandoned outdoor skating facility on town-owned property at the northern end of Hat Trick Drive. The plan requires zoning amendments because the structure will not meet standards for buffer zones. The project received wide support during a public hearing.
Regarding the southern end of Hat Trick Drive, a representative from Wal-Mart presented landscaping plans designed to mitigate the aesthetic impacts from a proposed outdoor garden center. The council approved, 4-2, Wal-Mart's plan to operate the garden center – as the store has done for the past three years – even though the sales area is twice as large as relatively new zoning rules allow. In addition to the sales area, the retailer plans to construct an outdoor storage area for pallets, which also falls outside zoning rules.
For Hat Trick Drive as a whole, the council authorized Poore to strike a deal between the town, Wal-Mart and Falmouth Plaza to redevelop the privately owned alleyway behind Wal-Mart into a two-lane street with pedestrian amenities. The project is estimated to coast $525,000, which will be divided evenly between the three entities.
The council approved that plan without discussion, 4-0. (Councilor Chris Orestis had stepped out of the room at the time of the vote.) Construction could begin next year, Poore said.
The hockey rink and the garden center were addressed by the Planning Board earlier this month. The board opposed the hockey rink, 3-2, and approved the garden center, also 3-2.
The crux of Monday's discussion was the relationship between the proposed Hat Trick Drive project and Wal-Mart's plans to operate a garden center. Councilor Sean Mahoney asked why the garden center project was bypassing the Planning Board's site plan review process.
Poore said it was the result of a unique circumstance. Wal-Mart had been granted temporary approval to operate a garden center at that location for three previous years while the store developed plans to expand the store and put a garden center elsewhere. When the expansion plans were scuttled, the store was left without any options for a garden center because the area had undergone significant zoning changes in the meantime.
Poore added that Wal-Mart had negotiated a deal to contribute to the Hat Trick Drive project if the garden center was approved in a timely fashion.
"We were told by Wal-Mart ... that if we had to go through a site plan process – that was going to extend two to three months into the garden center sales season – that there wasn't going to be a Hat Trick Drive (deal)."
Joan Fortin, an attorney representing Wal-Mart, clarified the retailer's position, saying that the garden center is key to the success of the business, and operating without it is a "fairly significant hardship."
Councilor Sean Mahoney said he was uncomfortable with the arrangement.
"I've just got to say, it doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling of why we're here today ... at all," he said.
Councilor Russ Anderson noted that the Planning Board approved the project in a 3-2 vote, and added that a site review process could do more harm than good. By approving the project without a site plan review, the store would be able to operate the garden center during the planting season, the store would provide mitigation above and beyond what might be required by the Planning Board, and the town would see significant improvements to Hat Trick Drive.
"That's a no-brainer to me," Anderson said.
In the end, the council voted 4-2 to approve the plan, with Mahoney and Councilor Karen Farber opposed.
Planning Board Chairman Jay Chace said Tuesday that the council's decision to bypass the site review process is well within its rights. The Planning Board is staffed by volunteers appointed by the council, and the board's role is advisory, he said.
Nonetheless, Chace said he is concerned about preserving "due process," that the rights of abutters to the Hat Trick Drive projects might be overlooked.
Monday's meeting ended abruptly at 11 p.m., when Anderson called for an early adjournment due to the late hour. Four items remained on the agenda, including a discussion on replacement of a bridge at River Point Conservation Area. The motion was seconded by Orestis.
Council rules prohibit discussion after an early adjournment is called. Adjournment was approved, 4-2, with Farber and Mahoney opposed.
Afterwards, Mahoney implied Anderson had shown disrespect for people who attended the meeting and waited for the bridge discussion.