October 11, 2011

Falmouth retargeting Route 1 as 'downtown'

Some question the new zoning plan, fearing traffic jams and a negative effect on businesses.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FALMOUTH - In a town where some bemoan the lack of a typical village center, a two-mile stretch of Route 1 -- from the intersection with Route 88 to the Interstate 95 connector -- is being targeted as an obvious place to develop a "downtown."

Town officials are again focusing their attention on improving the appearance and future use of the Route 1 commercial corridor, which includes several shopping plazas dominated by a Walmart, a Rite Aid drugstore and a Shaw's supermarket.

The Town Council's Community Development Committee is reviewing zoning regulations that have remained largely unchanged since the mid-1990s and is developing a plan for road and other infrastructure improvements that would make the most of the area. When the committee meets at 8 a.m. Thursday at Town Hall, it's expected to choose a consultant to shepherd the process.

But some councilors and others question whether Route 1 is ripe for a village makeover and wonder whether inviting greater commercial and residential density along the corridor is a good idea.

"We have to decide whether this is the village center, and if it is, does it have the bones to become the village center that people envision," said Councilor Tony Payne, the committee's chairman. "I'm trying to remain open-minded about what we're going to do. We also have to walk the line between what property owners want and what public policy requires."

While Falmouth doesn't have a traditional village center, its town hall and police and fire departments are clustered on Falmouth Road, and its schools are clustered on Woodville Road, both in the western part of town.

The focus on the Route 1 corridor has been renewed since Falmouth voters narrowly rejected a proposal in June that many said would have created a village center at the former Plummer-Motz and Lunt school complex at Middle and Lunt roads. Now, the complex is up for sale or lease.

A planning survey released last month showed that a majority of respondents want to pursue development of a "town center."

Falmouth is one of several communities in Greater Portland, including Scarborough, South Portland, Windham and Yarmouth, that are reviewing the zoning in their commercial corridors, said Theo Holtwijk, Falmouth's long-range planning director.

Falmouth administrators have recommended the consulting team of T.Y. Lin International, Woodard & Curran and MRLD to work on the Route 1 project. Their $28,650 proposal was the least expensive of five that the town received.

The team would study traffic flow and infrastructure in the area and make recommendations to the committee for improvements to roads, sidewalks, utilities and parks. "We want to be very efficient and practical with our money," Holtwijk said.

The committee developed a policy, approved by the council in January, that will be the basis for Route 1 zoning amendments. The policy sets out to create "a vibrant, attractive, safe, walkable, human-scaled, mixed-use, around-the-clock village that is appealing to residents, businesses and consumers alike."

The "village center" would promote concentrated commercial activity and require new buildings to have second stories where residential units would be encouraged. Maximum building footprints would be reduced, as would required setbacks from roads, to encourage construction closer to the street.

Payne said he's not sold on the idea that a village center can be developed along Route 1 without creating traffic jams and hurting businesses.

"If we continue to build density in that area, how is traffic going to move, with so few side streets?" Payne asked. "There's the potential for horrible congestion."

In the village center, new drive-through restaurants and car dealerships would be prohibited. That's a sticking point for Bill Sowles, owner of the Morong Falmouth car dealership on Route 1.

Sowles has participated on three Route 1 study committees since the 1980s, including one in 2005 that produced recommendations now considered "obsolete" by town officials.

"It's frustrating," Sowles said. "We came up with a report and nothing happened. They keep throwing good money after bad."

Sowles said he has spent about $6 million improving his property in recent years, including about $500,000 on extras required by zoning, such as a paved pathway to nearby woods, underground utilities, landscaping and lighting.

"I find it offensive," Sowles said Monday. "I've been here since the 1970s and you're making me a non-permitted use? That will only make it more difficult for me to do anything. This is a commercial district. I'm all for beautifying it, but I don't see it becoming a village center."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: kbouchard@pressherald.com

 

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