Residents, Conservation Advocates Concerned About Driving Range on Conservation Land

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By: Brent Runyon
Published: 10/12/10

The Falmouth Housing Trust’s plans for a private golf driving range on conservation land and two new affordable homes on Sam Turner Road are raising concerns among residents and conservation advocates alike.

The plans call for a five-acre piece of conservation land to be clear cut and turned into a practice range for the members of the exclusive Golf Club of Cape Cod.

The land is currently under a conservation easement, according to Anne C. Saganic, Falmouth Housing Trust, but could be used for recreational purposes.

“I think that a practice range is a permissible use and I think that it would be good for a lot of reasons,” Ms. Saganic said.

“It’s not an old growth forest. It’s scrub pines and there’s an NStar easement. There’s poison ivy. It’s not Beebe Woods.”

Under the agreement, Golf Club of Cape Cod would pay $2,000 a month for use of the land, which would also be available for the use of Esker Place residents, but not open to the public.

“It’s an out-of-the-box proposal, and we’ll admit that,” Ms. Saganic said. “It’s unusual, and I would say that the times we’re in, out-of-the-box proposals are what is required of a lot of nonprofits.”

Golf courses as open space?

Margaret Hough Russell, administrator for The 300 Committee, said she has reviewed both the deed and the original 40B permit, and, in her opinion, the land should not be used for a golf practice facility.

She cited the language in the comprehensive permit that reads, “there shall be no construction or improvements of any kind,” on the land.

“To me that says that it shouldn’t be touched as a driving range,” Ms. Russell said.

The permit also states that, compared to other areas of town, this is not an especially sensitive area, although it does include a wildlife corridor and is a habitat for the Eastern box turtle.

Ms. Saganic said that the language in the comprehensive permit is not consistent with the language in the deed, which refers to the land as open space. Open space designation allows golf uses; for instance, the Falmouth Country Club also has an open space restriction, she said.

Plans also call for two new affordable homes to be constructed on Sam Turner Road, a short distance from the 18-unit Esker Place affordable housing development.

No public hearing

Some members of the public have questioned the board of appeals process during this application, which was posted on the agenda, but not subject to the normal public hearing procedures.

Cheryl A. Williams, a proponent of the effort to repeal the Chapter 40B law, said the application should never have been submitted as an administrative approval.

“The law says that if there are changes in the issuance of the permit, that the applicant has to notify the board in writing, promptly,” Ms. Williams said. “This is for a comprehensive permit that was issued 20 years ago.”

Maureen Harlow-Hawkes, a Falmouth conservation commissioner and an abutter to the project, also raised questions about the permit application process and concerns about the lack of public input.

The plans were submitted as a modification of an existing Chapter 40B permit at the beginning of September to the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals. The original permit, issued in 1990, called for 20 affordable homes at the development called Esker Place.

Attorney Laura M. Moynihan argued that the changes to the permit were insubstantial and could be granted by the board with an administrative approval.

Last month, board members discussed the modification request, but did not reach a decision on the matter. Board members asked the Falmouth Housing Trust to inform abutters of the project, and to seek referrals from the Department of Natural Resources and the Falmouth Engineering Department.

Because the permit modification was applied for as an administrative approval, there is no guarantee that abutters’ comments will be heard at the meeting.

“I would feel strongly that the [zoning board of appeals] should allow some dialogue for those who are interested,” Ms. Harlow-Hawkes said. “I’m hoping they’ll do the right thing and open it up to public comment.”

Zoning board of appeals Chairman Matthew J. McNamara said that although the board will not take public testimony, it will hear comments from abutters and interested parties during the discussion. He said the the board has not yet determined if the project is substantial or insubstantial.

“The way I would characterize it is that the board held onto our options,” Mr. McNamara said.

40B Blues

Board members could decide that the alteration of the permit should be considered a substantial change. In that case Falmouth Housing Trust would have to apply for a new Chapter 40B comprehensive permit.

The effort to repeal Chapter 40B at the ballot on November 2 might seem to add a time pressure to the decision, but Mr. McNamara said that would not affect the board’s decision on October 14.

By law, Mr. McNamara could have approved the project himself, as a modification of the original permit, but he said he was uncomfortable doing that, partially because the project was approved so long ago.

“This is so long ago it wasn’t anything I was even familiar with,” he said.

Ms. Williams said that the Chapter 40B law states that the board of appeals has 20 days to determine if the modification is a substantial or insubstantial change. By not making a decision, the modification has, in effect, already been approved, she said.

But Mr. McNamara said the board has fulfilled all the legal requirements by writing in a letter to Ms. Moynihan that they would discuss the matter during its regular meeting.

The discussion will continue on Thursday during the regular Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, which begins at 5 PM at town hall.

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