Potential Falmouth Shopping Center buyer balks at proposed limitations
FALMOUTH — As the Town Council considers a proposed zoning amendment that would prevent new big-box retail development in the U.S. Route 1 business corridor, the potential buyer of the Falmouth Shopping Center is urging the town to quash the rule change.
The amendment, introduced by the council's Community Development Committee on July 23, would limit the size of most new or expanded commercial properties in the corridor to a "footprint" of 30,000 square feet. Grocery stores could occupy a footprint of 60,000 square feet.
The town's Route 1 Business District, which includes the shopping center, currently has no size limit on commercial development.
But the proposed limits are "hastily and arbitrarily conceived," according to Ben Devine, a Falmouth resident and principal of Devine Capital, a partner with Philadelphia-based W.P. Realty in purchasing the shopping center. The deal is currently pending.
Devine also is a part-owner of Falmouth Plaza, the real estate company that leases space on Route 1 to the town's only big-box retailer, Walmart. Coincidentally, the store is about to begin a major expansion, which already is approved and would not be affected by the proposed amendment.
In a recent letter to councilors and town staff, Devine said the research used by the CDC in recommending the footprint cap "seems to be based on guesses at the outdated size of a few retailers that have never shown any interest in locating to Falmouth."
The zoning amendment comes after 10 years of planning and debate about how to redevelop the Route 1 corridor into a more pedestrian-friendly "village" of shops and multi-use buildings.
Earlier zoning changes considered by the CDC as part of that process allowed larger footprints. As recently as May, a CDC memo to the council proposed capping footprints of new single-tenant commercial buildings at 90,000 square feet.
With the proposal of a new, lower cap two months later, "the town is rushing to make things happen," said Devine.
But according to CDC Chairwoman Bonny Rodden, the new limit is a "reasoned decision" based on careful study.
"The CDC looked at buildings in Falmouth, we looked at construction outside of Falmouth, we looked at studies and examples in other areas. Many communities in Maine and throughout the country are doing this," she said. "We did our homework."
She said limiting development to a 30,000-square-foot footprint – slightly larger than the Staples store located across Route 1 from the shopping center – would attract businesses that are a "better fit" for Falmouth than big-box stores that often occupy upwards of 100,000 square feet.
"The goal of the zoning amendment is to make it clear, as a community, what our town looks like," she said.
Rodden said that the CDC and town council welcome Devine's input. "We want him to work with us, as the current owners have done," she said. "Together, we've shared a vision (for the shopping center), and part of that vision was a footprint limitation."
For his part, Devine said he wants a "candid dialogue with the town about what's possible. We have to work together. Our common goal is to create a vibrant retail environment."
He said there should be no fear that shopping center would become "Maine Mall North," and that his objection to the footprint limitation is not based on plans to bring in a big-box tenant. He also pledged that he and his partners will not apply to develop space for such a tenant while the zoning amendment would be tabled.
"The reality is that Falmouth is not in threat of big box retail. Years of difficulty in marketing the Falmouth Shopping Center and the surrounding retail properties is proof positive of the challenges that exist in the Route One commercial corridor," he wrote in his letter to the town council.
"Then why is he so concerned about a footprint limit?" said Rodden in response. "The town has been working on this for so long. We need to get going, and turn the concepts for the shopping center into something concrete. You have to start somewhere."
The CDC plans to hold a public discussion of the zoning amendment later this month or in September. Additional zoning changes will be presented over the winter, Rodden said.
Meanwhile, across the street, the plans to expand the Falmouth Walmart continue on track, according to Devine. They call for the store's size to increase from 92,000 square feet to 124,000, with the addition of a grocery center and a pharmacy.
Final permits are now being obtained and contractors are submitting cost proposals, he said. Construction could begin in six weeks.