What’s in a word? When it describes the center of a community developed intentionally over 37 years, it matters a lot. When the word is “village,” height and style matter, too.

Falmouth’s village as depicted on signage and its village center ordinances have such a history dating to at least the 1986 Route 1 Study. In the decade that followed, detailed design guidelines were developed and published in 1997. For the next 16 years, they preserved the intention of keeping the style of buildings in that evolving commercial center village-like.

Why? Presumably the neighborhoods surrounding the center (on both sides of Route 1 from Route 88 to the Falmouth Spur) had something to do with it: traditional and contemporary New England-style homes – most of them two stories.

So how did our village center come to have five five-story towers and one at four stories?

In the six to 10 years culminating in 2013, successive community development subcommittees were charged with creating new (the current village center) ordinances. Drafted by staff with input from councilors who engaged with other committees and the public, the proposed changes debuted in May 2012. Much hard work and good intentions went into them, but several things are worth noting to answer the previous question.

In the initial May 2012 public presentation, a slide depicted proposed height changes – from 2 ½ stories (35 feet) to “up to four stories” (60 feet). That may be the only time a foot height was mentioned at a Town Council meeting. What was repeated at several subsequent meetings was “up to four stories.” At some point 60 feet became 65, but council discussions focused on streetscape, parking, signage and infrastructure enhancements.


As we now know, 65 feet allows for up to five stories, not “up to four.”

An equally inexplicable and dramatic change was to architectural style. In an unrecorded subcommittee meeting, perhaps as staff drafted language for the committee to review, someone decided to effectively replace the longstanding design guidelines with, “No particular architectural style required.” It’s not clear what discussion, if any, took place.

In public, no mention was made, which may help explain why the appearance of the towers hit many residents so hard.

The current ordinance states that “ground-floor ceiling heights shall be taller than upper stories … and a minimum of 10 feet.” So future four-story buildings – whether stand-alone or multi-use complexes – could have a height maximum of 45 feet with a 10-foot ground floor; three upper floors of 9 feet (great for affordable studios and one-bedrooms) and a roof of 8 feet. The retail floor could also be 12 feet with three 10-foot stories above and 3 feet to the parapet. Such retail space would suit small shops, boutiques and cafes residents have said they want with rooflines befitting a “village” center and overall complementing surrounding neighborhoods.

Lisa Joy, Lee Hanchett, Lois Lengyel, Eydie Pryzant and Jack Uminski are members of a citizens’ initiative group who proposed the Question 1 referendum in Falmouth’s election.

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