Making Democracy Work

Land Use

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.


In Massachusetts, the planning and zoning powers of towns are granted by the state legislature. The original state zoning enabling act was passed in 1920; Falmouth established a Planning Board in 1923 and three years later became the first town on Cape Cod to adopt a zoning by-law. In 1957, Falmouth adopted its first subdivision regulations. The Cape Cod Commission Act, passed in 1990, added a regional component to Falmouth's land use planning and regulation.

Planning Board

The principal responsibility for planning in Falmouth rests with the Planning Board, which has seven unpaid elected members. The Town Manager appoints a staff of three full-time positions: Town Planner, Assistant Planner, and Administrative Assistant. The staff advises the Planning Board and other town departments as needed.

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.


Under Falmouth's Zoning Bylaw the town is divided into different kinds of districts and the various uses of property permitted in each district are spelled out. No other by-law has such impact upon the town's growth and character, nor such far-reaching aesthetic and economic implications. Its importance is shown by the fact that it can be modified only by a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting and that all changes must be approved by the State Attorney General before they become effective. The kinds of districts and permitted uses are in the Articles of the Code of Falmouth, Section 240

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.

Zoning Board of Appeals

The power to grant exceptions and variances to the provisions of the Zoning By-law rests with the Zoning Board of Appeals which has five regular and two alternate members appointed by the Board of Selectmen. It must consider property rights of the applicant along with the concerns of neighbors and balancing all within the criteria set forth in the Town bylaws.

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.

Building Department

State and federal laws govern the building code, which sets standards for construction materials and wiring in the interests of safety. The code requires a permit for any new construction, alteration or relocation of a building. Building permits can be obtained from the Building Department in Town Hall. Fees for permits are based on the size of the building.

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.

Department of Public Works

The Department of Public Works

combines under one administrative authority the construction and maintenance of town roads, supervision of the town water supply and sewers, care of the town's many parks and school grounds, and conservation of the forests. It plans long range projects and sees that the town complies with state sanitary and health requirements.

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.

The Water Department

is responsible for the Falmouth municipal water system. One third of town water is pumped from three groundwater wells and the rest from Long Pond reservoir. The Upper Cape Water Supply Cooperative supplies the towns surrounding the Massachusetts Military Reservation, including Falmouth, with uncontaminated water. The Cooperative was created in 2001 because long-term plumes of contamination from the base had degraded the aquifer. The plumes leaching from the base are being treated by the military.

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.

The Wastewater Division

was created in 2003 in response to increasing demand for services and increasing impacts on the town's fresh and salt water resources. Throughout most of Falmouth, wastewater is disposed of on-site in septic systems or older cesspools. A sewer system was built in the 1980's to serve about 500 properties with six pumping stations and a wastewater treatment facility. The design to upgrade the facility was complete in 2003 and discharge began in late 2005. This facility treats wastewater by a combination of settling lagoons with sand filtration of treated effluent and it is designed to use spray irrigation during the summer months.

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.

The Solid Waste Division

includes the Waste Management Facility , the Upper Cape Regional Transfer Station at the Massachusetts Military Reservation, the curbside refuse collection contract, and the curbside recycling contract. The handling and disposal of solid waste is one of the major items in the town budget. The Solid Waste Advisory Committee was established by Town Meeting in 1989 to help plan an integrated, economical waste management program for the town and to facilitate a coordinated town-wide effort to deal with solid waste.

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.

The Engineering Division

headed by a registered professional engineer, provides engineering and surveying services to town departments. Division employees prepare specifications, surveys, plans, estimates and reports on various projects such as roads, subdivisions, bridges, water and sewer, and solid waste disposal.

The Highway Division

is managed by the Superintendent of Highways. The division has a fleet of trucks, mowers, sweepers and other motorized equipment. The town owns some snow removal equipment and contracts with private individuals for additional plowing. The Highway Division maintains all town roads, does some repairs on bridges. The division also maintains the Shining Sea Bikeway. The Highway Division oversees beach maintenance, including building maintenance, parking lot maintenance, rubbish collection and general maintenance. The division is working on a long-term project to filter storm water runoff and to redirect storm drains away from vulnerable wetlands and other water bodies. The division installs regulatory signs with the approval of the Selectmen and police.

The Building Facilities Maintenance Division

is responsible for maintenance of all town buildings except schools. The Division Coordinator also heads the Emergency Preparedness Department.

The Trees, Parks, Forestry and School Grounds Division

is headed by the Tree Warden. The division maintains almost 1,000 acres of parks, cemeteries, school grounds and forested watershed, 176 miles of tree-lined roads, and a number of athletic fields, playgrounds, basketball and tennis courts. The Tree Warden grants permits for utility and right-of-way tree trimming, and shade tree plantings and removals. He also acts as the Insect Pest Control Officer.

Conservation Commission

The Falmouth Conservation Commission was created in 1961 to protect natural resources and watershed areas in the town. It administers both state and local wetland laws and oversees management of more than 1500 acres of town-owned conservation land.

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.

Community Preservation Committee

The CPC is a nine member committee established in June 2005 and charged with implementing the Community Preservation Act (CPA) in the Town of Falmouth. The CPC conducts an annual assessment of community preservation needs and makes recommendations to Town Meeting for the funding of Community Preservation Act initiatives.

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.

Division of Natural Resources

The Division of Natural Resources is charged with reviewing and enforcing environmental laws and regulations. It is staffed by a director, two natural resources officers and an animal control/natural resources officer. The first three are required to have police training since part of their job is to enforce hunting, fishing, shellfishing and dog laws. They investigate poaching and illegal dumping. The director initiates enforcement actions and prosecution of violators and also serves as liaison with state and federal agencies.

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.

Conservation Organizations

Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuaries, Inc.

incorporated in 1962, is a private non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of open space in Falmouth. Its holdings include 55 parcels of land encompassing more than 208 acres. Among them are most of the land surrounding Salt Pond along Surf Drive, marshland in Great Sippewissett Marsh, and the 49 acre Bourne Farm in West Falmouth. The restored 1775 Bourne farm house is open to the public and available for weddings and community affairs; the grounds include a pond, walking paths and plantings of wildflowers native to southern New England. Free nature classes are offered in the summer. Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuaries, Inc. also maintains the Cornelia Lee Carey Sanctuary, a 12-acre point of land on the north side of Quissett Harbor called The Knob.

The 300 Committee

is a private, non-profit land trust founded in 1985 with the goal of setting aside special parcels of land at a time of unprecedented development. Its name reflects its initial project: to preserve 300 acres in the town's tercentenary year. To date, The 300 Committee has been instrumental in helping to save over 2200 acres through town acquisition, state grants, private land donations, and the establishment of Conservation restrictions. The 300 Committee helps the town meet its commitment to preserve 25% of Falmouth's total land area, or 7000 acres, as open space.

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 ( 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.

The Association to Preserve Cape Cod, Inc.

is a Cape-wide public advocacy organization. It conducts research, publishes reports and impact studies as well as a newsletter. APCC founded the Business Roundtable for businessmen, bankers, environmentalists and planners to discuss their mutual interest in protecting the environment on which much of the Cape Cod economy depends.

The Oyster Pond Environmental Trust

monitors and protects Oyster Pond and its watershed.

The Quissett Harbor Preservation Trust

protects the watershed of Quissett Harbor. The Coonamessett River Trust is working to restore the Coonamessett River and its banks to encourage the return of the historic anadromous fish runs.

  • *Falmouth Water Stewards formerly The Falmouth Association Concerned with Estuaries and Saltponds (FACES)
  • * was formed to address the degradation of salt ponds and estuaries such as Great Pond, Green Pond and Bournes Pond from nitrogen overloading that is largely caused by lawn fertilizers and (legal) septic leachate.

The Falmouth Ashumet Pond Citizens Committee (FAPCC)

has advised the town how to use the $8.5 million dollars from the Department of Defense to clean up contaminated water. The Falmouth Friendly Lawns program and other nitrogen reducing projects are sponsored by FAPCC.

Coalition for Buzzards Bay

is dedicated to the restoration, protection and sustainable use and enjoyment of our irreplaceable Bay and its watershed. The Coalition works to improve the health of the Bay ecosystem for all through education, conservation, research and advocacy

Cape Cod Trout Unlimited Chapter

is dedicated to the mission to conserve, protect and restore North American's cold water fisheries & their watersheds.

Massachusetts Audubon Society, Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary,

is well known for its 65 varieties of holly trees planted throughout the sanctuary.

Sierra Club, The Cape Cod and the Islands Group,

America's oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization.