Davis Straits And Zoning

A bird's-eye view of the Davis Straits area.

The Falmouth planning and select boards will create a working group to examine the potential for a form-based zoning code for the Davis Straits area.

“The question about the zoning is do we look at creating a zoning overlay district or do we create a new zoning district for Davis Straits?” Town Planner Thomas Bott asked at a joint meeting of the planning and select boards on Saturday, February 13.

An overlay district would keep the underlying zoning intact for the 77-acre Davis Straits area, while a new form-based zoning code would create new requirements for development there.

“The idea is do we go all-in and say this is what we want to see for this area and replace the underlying zoning with new zoning, or do we want to have an overlay district that allows the two to coexist as best as they might be able to?” Mr. Bott asked.

Select board member Douglas C. Brown described an overlay district as “the more cautious approach.” He asked what the town would lose by creating an overlay district, rather than changing the zoning in its entirety.

“What we would lose by doing that is people can do what they are doing right now,” planning board chairwoman Patricia H. Kerfoot said.

Planning board members Robert J. Leary said this, coupled with action by past developers, is reason to change the zoning as a whole.

“I wouldn’t want to go with the overlay district because of what CVS did,” Mr. Leary said. “CVS bought the land next to it, tore down the Davis House, and expanded their footprint. I like that little stretch between CVS and the Enterprise rental, and I’m fearful of somebody coming in, buying up all those lots and tearing down all those houses.”

Select board chairwoman Megan E. English Braga said if the town wants to promote new development, it should not proceed with an overlay district district.

“The overlay, to me, doesn’t really seem bold and transformative,” Ms. English Braga said. “Frankly, it seems confusing. If we’re going to take this on as a project, you just have to take it on. The overlay still leaves it essentially to somebody who is really forward-looking, a developer coming in and doing something substantive and changing that space. We have the opportunity to drive that development, and we abdicate a lot of that potential if we do the overlay.”

Ms. Kerfoot agreed, describing a form-based zoning code as a bold and forward-looking way of driving development in the Davis Straits area. It would make it easier for developers, clearly describing what the town is looking for in that area, she said.

“One of the things with that is you can depend upon what you can do,” she said. “You can start out and make a plan that you can pretty well guarantee you’re going to be OK with.”

Mr. Bott said with form-based code comes ease of use for developers and more predictability in the physical outcomes of a development for the town.

“We believe we will get a higher-quality development as a result of well-defined development standards, a stronger connection between the development plan and regulations, and a more efficient approval process,” he said. “If you design a standard to be built to and if the developers build to that standard, they get to get their ticket punched and they get to move on.”

Mr. Brown asked if this could result in something like a manufacturing plant on Davis Straits. Mr. Bott said form-based zoning code does address uses, and the town will have to clearly define what is and is not allowed within the district.

Given the changing economy, he predicts developments in the Davis Straits area will change, and form-based code can help guide that change.

“We believe big boxes don’t want to be big boxes anymore, and there are only so many 24-hour gyms you can put in as an interim use,” Mr. Bott said. “We really believe property owners will get a better return by redeveloping, and this will allow for a wider variety in housing options.”

Ms. Kerfoot agreed, noting that a lot of big box stores and malls are not surviving. While the change will not happen overnight, creating a zoning code allows the town to guide this redevelopment when it happens, she said.

“If we don’t have a plan in place that gives some guidance, we will get whatever,” she said.

Mr. Bott said there are several ways to manage the density of housing within a mixed-use development. While the town does not have to set a cap, instead letting the market drive the number of units made, the guidelines can require a minimum number of units or set a maximum density allowed. Typically, towns set a maximum density within their zoning bylaws.

“There are a number of things we can employ to encourage housing within a development,” he said, citing the development of a multifamily housing bylaw as one example.

Planning board member Charlotte Harris said while form-based code does not not specifically say anything about affordable housing, the creation of affordable units is a side effect of mixed-use development.

Board member James E. Fox agreed.

“By its nature, allowing more units is going to force smaller units in there, especially if you put a minimum in certain areas,” Mr. Fox said.

Per the town’s current zoning, developers are required to build 2,000-square-foot units. By increasing the density allowed, developers would be encouraged to build more smaller units. Mr. Fox said the size of the units, combined by their mixed-use nature, would drive the cost down.

Ms. Kerfoot compared it to Main Street, noting a number of shops there have rental units on the upper floor.

Board member Douglas H. Jones asked if the development of a form-based zoning code was advantageous or disadvantageous to realtors and developers. Mr. Fox described it as advantageous, because it results in additional rent payments.

“If we design your forms right, it will,” he said. “That is the whole thing: it has to not just be profitable, they have to be incentivized to tear down what they have and rebuild. It has to have a pretty good financial incentive to work.”

Mr. Jones said this worried him, asking if realtors were pushing form-based code for their benefit. Ms. Kerfoot said the push for form-based code comes from the planning board.

Ms. Harris said while form-based code benefits realtors, they are not the only party to benefit.

“There is a huge mutual benefit for the town in reaching its goals for affordable housing, for workforce housing, for more housing for downsizing seniors close to walkable areas, improved transportation, and better lighting,” she said. “They are a much more attractive community. If you think about how Davis Straits looks now, where individual developers did whatever was allowed, it is not an attractive part of town, but if you look back to Old Main Street, the part we all really love and want to protect, that actually is the way form-based zoning pushes you to look.”

Speaking as a realtor, Mr. Fox disagreed that form-based zoning benefits realtors. Realtors, members of the National Association of Realtors, are focused on selling houses. He recommended using the term developer to describe those who benefit from form-based code.

Planning board member Pamela Harting-Barrat described form-based code as “the epitome of smart growth.”

“It is a wonderful way to provide affordable housing for people who don’t need to rely on an automobile,” Ms. Harting-Barrat said, noting mixed-use developments enable residents to live and work in a walkable area with retail shops available at street level.

Under the current zoning, Mr. Bott said, developers are encouraged to build single-family homes. Even when a 40B development is proposed, developers default to three-bedroom units on single individual lots.

“The marketplace, presently, in the zoning we have, is providing solely single-family dwellings,” he said, noting form-based code will allow for a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

Ms. Harting-Barrat said it will help diversify the community.

“When we look at what do we want our community to look like, I don’t think we want the community to look like me or Pat,” she said, noting Cape Cod has the highest percentage of residents older than 65 in the state.

The town needs more than just affordable units to attract younger families.

“Until this town brings fast internet, we are never going to bring young people back here,” she said, and high internet speeds coupled with an affordable place to live could mitigate outmigration.

Ms. English Braga said Mashpee Commons demonstrates how one dense development draws people to it. Citing Starbucks as an example, she said she has seen numerous people in their 30s at the café. Many of them live, shop and work in the area.

“It is very striking,” she said. “I do not see large numbers of people like that congregating in Falmouth in the same way. You have our student base, and then there is a huge gap. It is an observation that when you create those spaces, it does draw people in.”

Form-based code also encompasses transportation. Ms. Kerfoot said the proposal envisions a new streetscape in Davis Straits, one that accommodates more than just drivers in their individual vehicles.

Mr. Bott said this could include sidewalks, street trees and a 10-foot-wide multi-modal bike path. He noted that while the Davis Straits reset study predates the Complete Streets Program, the study reflects a number of the best management practices listed within Complete Streets.

The study also proposes a greenway in the Davis Straits area, which he said gets less attention than the conceptual redevelopment plan. A greenway helps tie that redevelopment together, and encourages walking instead of driving.

“People will walk farther for something to do or something to see while walking along that area,” Mr. Bott said, making pedestrian connectivity an integral part of the plans for Davis Straits.

Planning board member Paul Dreyer said coastal resiliency also must play a role in any future development.

This involves developing where existing infrastructure is.

“We want to try to encourage development that is on our sewer system,” Ms. English Braga said.

With Davis Straits already developed, the town can build upon and improve what is already there.

While the boards agreed to create a working group to further discuss a form-based zoning code for the Davis Straits area, the makeup of the working group was not finalized. The boards considered two members from each group, as well as a developer. The boards also need to finalize a mission statement for the working group.

As one of its first actions, Ms. English Braga recommended the working group meet with a representative from a community that implemented form-based code to discuss the challenges they face.

“If we are going to dive into this, I think it would be really helpful to start understanding the nuts and bolts of where the challenges are with some of these things,” she said.

Ms. Kerfoot recommended this person present to both the planning and select boards, not just the working group.

“If we are in sync on this, and it sounds like we all want to work toward something together, which is to be further defined, if we have an initial knowledge, both full boards, of what the pitfalls might be, we’re ahead of the game,” she said.

The Davis Straits reset study can be viewed at www.davis-straits.com. The website also includes a survey soliciting public opinion on new zoning regulations for the area.

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