As Falmouth has grown and flourished, so has the challenge of preserving open space, providing recreational facilities and in general protecting the beautiful and bountiful environment of land and water which is the principal reason for that growth.
The long-range plan for land use is the responsibility of the Planning Board, which develops master plans and proposes zoning regulations for Town Meeting approval. The town's Comprehensive Plan was adopted by Town Meeting in 1998 and certified by the Cape Cod Commission to be compatible with the Regional Policy Plan. It drew on earlier Master Plans, but was not limited to land use issues. A Local Planning Committee was established in 1998 to encourage boards and committees to implement the Action Items in the plan that they are responsible for, and to update those Action Items every five years.
The Zoning Board of Appeals deals with exceptional cases. The Historic District Commission reviews proposed changes in Historic Districts. Proposals for construction in the town's waterways and wetlands come before the Conservation Commission. Since 1990, major developments of more than local concern have been subjected to scrutiny by the Cape Cod Commission.
All divisions of land and all proposals to change land use must either be approved or endorsed by the Planning Board. Review of residential subdivisions and commercial development site plans takes most of the board's time.
Overlay Districts. Land use in all of these districts may be restricted further if there is a specific overriding public interest at stake. In that case, the town creates an Overlay District to protect the public interest and adopts the appropriate regulations and zoning map to define the district. In Falmouth, overlay districts include, but are not limited to, Water Resource Protection, Accident Prevention (under the approaches to the Air Force base) Wetlands, Flood Plains, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, Wildlife Corridors, Historic Districts, and Coastal Pond Recharge Areas.
Property owners should determine the zoning restrictions on their property. Owners are responsible for getting all permits from the appropriate town committees before any construction work can start. The town has capped the number of building permits that it issues each year in order to spread out the impacts of rapid growth on the town's infrastructure.
Flood Plain Zoning. A national effort to protect human life and property along all shorelines subject to storm flooding has led to a federal program of flood plain insurance. The program covers property within the flood plain zone determined by calculations made by the Army Corps of Engineers with input from local experts. Houses being built or extensively remodeled within the flood plain zone must comply with a special building code in order to qualify for flood insurance; and banks with any federal connection, such as federally insured deposits, cannot give mortgages on houses without such insurance. More stringent regulations apply to houses located where they could be battered by storm waves than to houses susceptible only to floods.
The Falmouth Historical Commission promotes the protection of historical buildings, places, and neighborhoods. The FHDC controls new construction, renovation and demolition of existing structures by requiring that property owners obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the commission before undertaking work within a designated district. The seven historic districts in the town include parts of North Falmouth, West Falmouth, East Falmouth, Waquoit, Falmouth Village, Woods Hole and Quissett Harbor. To see the exact boundaries of these districts, consult the FHDC guidelines.
The FHC does not prevent change from occurring; nor does it prevent new development. Its intent is to make changes and additions harmonious with the existing historic and/or aesthetic values of the district.
The Design Review Committee is a five-member advisory board appointed by the Selectmen whose primary concern is the appearance of commercial and industrial buildings. The DRC reviews plans and signs for non-residential developments and reports its concerns to the town agency having jurisdiction.
The Board of Appeals acts only on petitions, which are of four kinds:
1) appeals from decisions of the Building Commissioner;
2) petitions for variances from the Zoning By-law;
3) applications for special permits, such as for changes to pre-existing nonconforming structures or for home-based businesses.
4) In addition, the Zoning Board is the sole granting authority for comprehensive 40B permits for affordable housing.
All applications are publicized in the Falmouth Enterprise no less than two weeks prior to the hearing date; and the Board of Appeals' office gets certified mailing lists from Assessors and mails copies of Notice of Public Hearing to all abutters and Town Departments. The Board of Appeals may limit its approval by imposing conditions or restrictions. Appeals from the board's decisions are made to the Barnstable County Superior Court.
The Building Commissioner enforces all the provisions of for the inspection of all buildings, properties, roads and signs. The inspectors of wiring, plumbing and gas are in his department. Appeals of the Commissioner's decision under the building code go to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Director of Public Works is appointed by the Town Manager with approval of the Selectmen. He is responsible the Zoning By-law and the building code, and is responsible for the day-to-day operations and the administration of the DPW. Under his supervision are the Highway Division, Water Division, Wastewater Division, Park and School Grounds Division, Solid Waste Division, Building Facilities Maintenance Division, and the Engineering Division. He also oversees the Waste Management Facility, municipal composting operation, and the contracts for municipal curbside trash and recycling collection.
All town water sources are treated with potassium hydroxide to stabilize the pH as well as with chlorine for disinfection. Voluntary or mandatory water restrictions are often imposed to limit depletion of the aquifer.
Improved wastewater systems required under state mandate (Title V) must be installed in new construction or when a residence is sold if the system does not pass inspection. Unfortunately, Title V does not address the severe problem of dying salt ponds and estuaries caused in large part by nitrogen that leaches from perfectly legal systems. The New Silver Beach wastewater project was completed on 2009.
Presently a nitrogen-removal plan is being developed beginning with the town's south facing estuaries. The Water Quality Management Committee was charged in the Spring of 2010 to review the CWMP. The Plan Review Committee presented an action plan to the Board of Selectmen in November 2010 with recommendations to meet established water quality standards in the Town's coastal embayments.
Falmouth contracts to have household and municipal trash collected in packer trucks at curbside. Those trucks, and others under private contract by commercial establishments and condominiums, take their loads to a regional transfer station at Otis Air Force Base. The station is shared also by Mashpee, Otis, Sandwich and Bourne. The loads are weighed, dumped, inspected for hazardous or unacceptable materials and then loaded into rail cars which are shipped directly to SEMASS resource recovery plant in Rochester.
Until the mid 1980's almost everything that residents wanted to dispose of was buried in the town landfill on Thomas B. Landers Road. The town has since developed an integrated solid waste program. Nothing is buried at the Waste Management Facility; the old landfill has been capped to prevent leaching. The Waste Management Facility has become the center of extensive recycling programs for metals, cardboard, TVs and computers, waste oil, mercury thermometers, fluorescent bulbs and switches, and certain batteries. There is also a swap shop at the facility, The Pick of the Litter. Residents can buy vehicle stickers to use at the Waste Management Facility. The stickers are good for two years. See the fee schedule. There is a town compost program for organic wastes, and periodic hazardous waste collections. Construction and demolition materials are sent to Bourne. There is a privately operated stump dump. The bulk of Falmouth's solid waste is shipped to SEMASS for incineration in a waste-to-energy plant.
Open Air Burning Permits are available from the Fire Prevention Officer or the Fire Inspector at the Fire Rescue Station, 399 Main Street. The fee is for the season, which runs from January 15 to May 1. To activate your permit, you must call (508) 548-2325 between 9:30 and noon on the day you plan to burn. Permission will depend on wind conditions and will be good only for the hours between 10 AM and 4 PM on that day. Only brush may be burned, NOT leaves, grass, hay or pine needles. Materials from land clearing, construction or demolition may NOT be burned.
There are seven unpaid commissioners and alternates appointed to three year terms by the Board of Selectmen. The Commission works to streamline the permitting process while still protecting the natural resources. It meets almost every Wednesday evening during the year to conduct its business.
The Commission applies the wetland laws to safeguard fresh and saltwater wetlands, associated dunes, beaches, banks, estuaries, ponds, rivers, streams and floodplains. These resource areas are presumed to be significant to the eleven "interests" of the wetland laws and are protected in the regulations by performance standards which must be met for any activity to be approved.
The Commission works closely with the Department of Natural Resources, the Shellfish Warden, the Department of Public Works, including the Tree Warden, and other official agencies such as the Waterways and Beach Committees, the Planning Board and the Cape Cod Commission.
The Conservation Commission educates the public about the importance of wetlands and open space; it welcomes public participation in preserving these natural resources. With the help of The 300 Committee and the Public Access Committee, the commission has defined and marked public access to ponds and shores, acquiring property to improve these rights of way. The commission keeps an index of all open areas in the town and produces maps showing all the conservation and outdoor recreation land in Falmouth. The maps are available in Town Hall.
Conservation land can be acquired by gift, purchase or taking by eminent domain. The Conservation Commission may accept gifts in the name of the town, with the approval of the Selectmen and Town Meeting. The Conservation Commission also promotes the use of conservation easements, whereby a landowner can obtain a reduced property assessment by formally agreeing not to develop his open space. An early purchase was the Coonamessett River Reservation, some 136 acres of cranberry bog, marsh and upland along the Coonamessett River in East Falmouth.
The CPA provides a special funding source that is dedicated to community preservation needs related to community housing, historic resources, open space, and recreation. CPA revenues are generated through a 3% surcharge on real property taxes along with matching funds generated through a transaction fee at the Registries of Deeds throughout the Commonwealth.
As state animal inspectors, members of the Department of Natural Resources are required to do an annual health inspection of all barns and livestock. The department is given state funds to implement boating safety law enforcement from June through August. Under the same state law, the department provides law enforcement for all off-road recreational vehicles.
Staff members perform wetland reviews and enforce wetland laws. The director advises the Board of Selectmen on matters concerning wetlands and wildlife, and performs investigations for various town departments, boards and commissions as required.
An important department function is wildlife management on all town properties. The department has researched areas, prepared plans and persuaded Town Meeting to adopt legal protection for wildlife corridors connecting public open space parcels. The department has also created wildlife habitats by selective mowing and cutting. When the town was given the 387 acre stretch of Beebe Woods, the department undertook to manage it, keeping the trails open for walkers and skiers.
Education is another responsibility of the department. The department has a great deal of information about local wildlife, wildlife habitats and the best ways for the public to interact with wildlife .
The Animal Control Officer is the dog officer and maintains the dog shelter off Blacksmith Shop Road, ably assisted by the volunteers of Friends of Falmouth Dogs. He also picks up injured animals and obtains medical treatment as required; picks up and disposes of dead animals; provides for humane disposal of unclaimed animals as required.
The Shellfish Warden, working under the policy direction of the Selectmen, is charged with protecting and expanding the local shellfish population. There are aquaculture operations and public shellfish beds in Falmouth, but they may be periodically closed to harvesting due to pollution or disease. In the years before rapid town growth, our shellfish beds were extraordinarily productive. Commercially important shellfish found in Falmouth include the soft shell clam, blue mussel, eastern oyster, bay scallop and northern quahog.
The shellfish warden protects existing shellfish from predators, ordinance violators, pollution, pesticides and oil spills. The warden expands shellfish areas by initiating and supervising seeding and transplant programs, and constructing and maintaining protective rafts. The warden conducts regular patrols for violations of state and local ordinances and makes wetlands and dock inspections.
The 300 Committee also purchases land in its own right and serves as a technical resource for landowners seeking information about alternative methods of preserving their property.
In conjunction with the Conservation Commission and the Department of Natural Resources, The 300 Committee administers the Stewardship Program, in which volunteer land stewards take responsibility for upkeep and management of specific parcels. The 300 Committee has over 1,200 members and employs one full-time and one part-time professional. Maps of conservation areas are available from The 300 Committee and can be downloaded from the website (http://www.300committee.org). Its office is located at 157 Locust Street, adjacent to the very popular Shining Sea Bikeway. The Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (WBNERR) operates marine research and environmental educational programs from its buildings on the old Swift estate at the head of Waquoit Bay. It also manages Washburn Island, the large, state-owned island on the west side of Waquoit Bay.
Coonamessett River Trust is working to restore the Coonamessett River and its banks to encourage the return of the historic anadromous fish runs.