Revised Falmouth density rules head for final approval

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FALMOUTH — There was a public outcry when density bonuses in the town’s new growth districts led to a surge in proposed multifamily developments last year.

But Monday, when the Town Council took up the proposed fix for the issue, only one resident had something to say.

After implementing a temporary moratorium on new two-family or multifamily projects last November, the council has been trying to eliminate what Community Development Director Ethan Croce called a bias in favor of multifamily units.

The council is now proposing to equalize the minimum area required per dwelling unit, whether it’s a single-family, two-family or multifamily project.

Under the ordinance amendment, which appears headed for final passage on March 12, the minimum area for each dwelling unit in the RA zone, which covers much of the eastern part of town, would be 10,000 square feet.

In the RB zone the minimum area would be 25,000 square feet and for the RD zone, which includes the area of Blackstrap, Brook and Leighton roads in West Falmouth, it would be 30,000 square feet per unit.

In addressing the density issue, councilors have admitted they made an error when they enacted new ordinances in the summer of 2016 as part of an update to the Comprehensive Plan.

Those changes essentially doubled the density allowed for multifamily housing and led to a series of controversial development projects, including a 32-unit project off Blackstrap Road.

Residents packed council and Planning Board meetings last fall when the density issue and the development moratorium were under discussion. At the time, their argument against doubling the density for multifamily housing was that new development in town must be reasonable and controlled.

In addition, many residents were concerned that increased housing density would put a strain on municipal services.

In response, the town also worked with the schools to develop an enrollment study designed to project Falmouth’s school facility needs for the next 10 years.

The Town Council and School Board will hold a joint meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 5, at Falmouth Elementary School to get an overview of the results of that study, according to Town Manager Nathan Poore.

Poore said Tuesday that the preliminary takeaway from the enrollment study is that “Falmouth is bucking the trend and is maintaining its enrollment levels with several bubble years coming up.”

It’s unclear how the ordinance fix the council has agreed upon would affect projects like the one on Blackstrap Road. But in a prior interview Croce said the number of units allowed on that property would certainly be reduced under the equalization proposal.

The new density rule the Town Council is now considering, however, would have no impact on a proposed contract zone in West Falmouth that could have more than 150 new residences, along with some commercial spaces.

And it’s also unlikely to put a stop to an effort to place a citizen’s petition on the June ballot that would repeal the new growth districts.

Steve Hundley, who was one of the most vocal critics of the density bonuses last fall, was the only resident to speak during Monday’s public hearing. He praised the council for making what he called “remarkable progress in addressing the concerns we had” and said “overall the (density fix) seems fair.”

However, Hundley also said the town’s ordinances governing residential development are “very confusing, difficult to understand and seem open to interpretation. The calculations for net density (still seem) ambiguous and those calculations could have a significant impact on what’s allowed” to be built.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.