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Falmouth says it's getting down to business

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Falmouth says it's getting down to business

FALMOUTH — By reviewing some ordinances and working with community members, town staff hope to let people know Falmouth is open for business.

Town Manager Nathan Poore said what the town is doing to become more business friendly and work with businesses often gets buried beneath stories of disgruntled business owners or controversial ordinances.

“A lot of (what we are doing) goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “Maybe we don’t do enough advertising it or making it a big deal at the council meetings, which is what people get to see.”

What people have seen in the recent past are battles between town councilors and business owners – like the now-resolved dispute over a sign erected by TidesmartGlobal on Route 1, and the debate over limits on tenant business sizes.

Theo Holtwijk, director of long range planning, said town staff are happy to help new businesses come into town and navigate things like site plan review or working with the Planning Board.

“The town is in all sorts of ways trying to be very responsive and help people become as informed as possible about the process (of bringing a business to Falmouth),” he said. “My sense is that Falmouth’s approach is not different than other communities.” 

For example, Poore and Holtwijk said, there are only minor differences between bringing a business to Falmouth and bringing a business to Yarmouth.

In Falmouth, the process varies depending on what the business is, Poore said. If there are no zoning issues with zoning, all that's required is obtaining the proper occupancy permits.

The process becomes slightly more complicated when looking to do a major redevelopment.

“Say a car dealership is being redeveloped into a bank, a hair salon and a hardware store – that would require a full site plan review process,” Poore said. 

Poore and Holtwijk said that by working with senior planner Ethan Croce before going to the Planning Board, bigger projects can move through the board and the process more quickly. 

Vanessa Farr, town planner for Yarmouth, said that the process for occupying an existing building is the same as Falmouth's, but the process for new constructions is slightly different.

Businesses looking to build from the ground up go or redevelop go through a similar site plan review process, but if a new code is approved by the council next month, projects under 20 acres will only have to go through an administrative review, instead of being seen by the council.

“If there are no waivers or variances needed and it meets all the requirements of the code it would get approval and the developer would move on and apply for the building permits,” she said.

Like Yarmouth, Falmouth is working on revamping part of its policy. An amendment to the site plan review process proposed by Councilor Karen Farber on Jan. 14 would allow smaller projects to skip the site plan review process and go through an administrative review like the one in Yarmouth.

Critics contend that where Falmouth runs into problems attracting new businesses is not necessarily an issue with the process, but an issue of codes and general community perception.

Attorney Jonathan Berry, who is also president of the independent Falmouth Economic Development Corp., said the code is not irreparably flawed, but needs amending.

“What I think would be amazing is for Falmouth is to do something bold and creative,” he said.

The town hopes to do that with the redesign of the Route 1 business district.

Berry said it is great that town staff are devoted to working with businesses, but he believes the zoning piece of the project needs to come before the infrastructure. He does not feel that the town should have to go back in and tweak pieces of the coding as it goes along; they need to fix it so it works for businesses before it is presented to the public.

Farr said she believes development problems in Falmouth stem not necessarily from coding, but from the fact that there is not a shared community vision.

“I think generally speaking Yarmouth residents and leaders seem to have more of a shared vision about how this town should change in the future and what kind of improvements will come in the future,” she said. “I think people expect that if you are going to build a project in Yarmouth, there is a certain aesthetic threshold you are going ot have to meet and a certain amount of public participation. There is a desired outcome, and I think most people can draw a picture of what that out come is. I think Falmouth has struggled with the fact that it is so diverse in terms of its character and so spread out in terms of its geography.”

Poore and Holtwijk agreed, and said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” They said town staff are working through an administrative rewrite that would make the process of figuring out design guidelines and maintaining a similar aesthetic across the board easier for businesses. 

Holtwijk said the town will continue to be open and responsive to the business community in its discussions and planning for the Route 1 redesign, which is scheduled to be voted on in June.

At the first of two business forums held this week, the plan was well received by most of the business owners in attendance. They had the opportunity to look over plans for Route 1 and offer suggestions for minor changes, but overall most said they were happy the town is willing to work with them on the project.

“You’re really considerate of the businesses,” Shirley Brannigan of Allen, Sterling & Lothrop said at a Tuesday morning forum.

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