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FALMOUTH — The message delivered to town officials in a public forum on growth and density was that 2016 zoning changes in support of an updated Comprehensive Plan are widely unpopular.
At the March 28 forum, many of the more than 170 residents in attendance said they are frustrated and question whether the vision for the town, as articulated in the Comp Plan, represents what people want for Falmouth.
On Tuesday night, the Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, or LPAC, was set to meet and synthesize everything it heard at last week’s forum at Falmouth Elementary School.
The goal, according to Theo Holtwijk, the town’s director of long-range planning and economic development, is for LPAC to make recommendations on zoning amendments for the Town Council to consider at its meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, April 8, at Town Hall.
In addition, the council will also meet in a special workshop session at noon on Friday, April 5, also at Town Hall. The sole agenda item is to “discuss implementation of the Comprehensive Plan, processes used to evaluate proposed private developments … and how best to identify the town’s vision and identity.”
Over the past year, the town has been challenged on a variety of issues related to its ongoing review of the 2016 zoning rules, which created new growth areas and encouraged multi-family housing. The new zoning also creates smaller lot sizes in the Residential A zones, which has allowed several property owners to split their lots and allow in-fill development of new homes.
Save Falmouth, a website created by resident Valentine Sheldon, has also raised questions about overcrowding in the town’s schools, property values and whether the town exceeded its growth cap three years ago.
Materials provided by LPAC at last week’s forum show the town has not exceeded its growth cap, although for 2018 the town issued 62 of the 65 growth permits allowed. Of those, 38 were for single-family homes and 24 were for two-family units.
In response to a flyer Sheldon sent to residents in advance of the March 28 public forum, the School Department also issued a statement, available on the town website, that indicates overall enrollment has remained steady over the past decade.
In addition, Superintendent of Schools Geoff Bruno said current student-to-teacher ratios at all grade levels are “well within” the guidelines established by the School Board, even though the schools are seeing several classes coming up with enrollment bubbles.
Bruno also said the high school’s current and projected enrollment of 689 students “is well under the designed capacity of 725 students.”
And while several residents have claimed there’s no space for students to eat lunch, Bruno said the high school included a smaller cafeteria by design when it was built. The goal, he said, was to continue the school’s longstanding culture, which promoted “students eating and mixing socially outside the cafeteria space.”
Besides the cafeteria, Bruno said, conversion of locker spaces into the current commons areas in the early 2000s has provided space for student lunches.
In explaining the 2016 zoning changes, LPAC said specific goals outlined in the 2013 Comprehensive Plan update included providing diverse residential opportunities, housing near public infrastructure, preservation of the town’s rural character and development that fits into existing neighborhoods.
The plan also calls for directing “a significant majority of new development to (designated) growth areas.”
While some residents last week continued to question the process by which the Comprehensive Plan was updated, along with the 2016 zoning changes, mostly they urged the council to reconsider the underlying justification for making those changes.
“It’s not clear whether the so-called vision for the town is representative of what residents feel it should be,” resident Jamie Welch said.
Rachel Sears agreed, saying what the town has done so far did not “address our primary concerns, (which) is what was the justification for the 2016 rezoning. It’s not clear how these changes harmonize with the Comprehensive Plan. There’s a lot of confusion here.”
In written comments sent to the Town Council, residents mostly backed what was said at the public forum.
Resident Steve Grimshaw wrote that “my concern and the concern of hundreds of other people at the forum is this: the new zoning is going to turn significant parts of Falmouth into North Portland if it isn’t reconsidered. … Falmouth is a desirable community (and) I believe that could all be wrecked by the potential surge in growth that would be encouraged by the current zoning rules.”
In opening the public forum last week, Council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said it’s become clear that “some of the 2016 zoning changes, which resulted from the Comprehensive Plan update, need to be changed and we intend to make those changes. That’s why we’re here tonight.”
Edited April 5, 2019, to more accurately reflect the school superintendent’s description of the cafeteria and lunch accommodations at Falmouth High School.
This chart, created by Falmouth’s Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, shows how many growth permits have been issued over the past three years.