Strict limits put on building permits; Nantucket decides to haul in gangplank

''The whole country is feeling the effects of a recession, and Nantucket is going through a building boom.''

Renee Hebert, assistant planner of the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission, is well aware of the paradox. While many American communities are scrambling to lure new businesses, Nantucket is heading in the opposite direction - seeking ways to limit its growth.

In some ways, Renee is in the middle. She wears a sweater, jeans, and boots to work. Outside her office are the cobbled streets, picket fences, and weathered shingles of an island community regularly described as ''quaint.'' She likes it that way - friendly and informal.

But on the wall behind her desk is an architect's plan for a new 250-room hotel and conference center. Maps of residential subdivisions litter her work table. In the local weekly, The Inquirer and Mirror, realtors list few houses for less than $100,000.

Nantucket is obviously booming.

So last year, with applications for building permits climbing, the voters at town meeting began hauling in the gangplank. They passed articles limiting the number of building permits to 80 per year and allowing building to begin on only one-tenth of the available lots during the year. Excluded from the provisions are owners who intend to become permanent year-round residents.

Now, a year later, the ordinance has been approved by the state attorney general. And to the surprise of some supporters, it has not yet been challenged in the courts.

But it has still to prove its value. In 1980, the year before it was approved , the town issued 161 building permits. Last year's total: 215.

The numbers don't tell the whole story, says Ms. Hebert. ''When you adopt any kind of growth control by law, it encourages growth for the first couple of years, and then it will phase down,'' she says. The reason: developers see it coming and get in under the wire. On the day of the 1981 town meeting, she recalls, more than 100 applications for building permits were submitted.

Why does Nantucket want to limit its growth?

The Growth Management Committee, established by the voters in 1980, discovered numerous reasons. First on the list was the notorious congestion of the downtown area - much of it caused by visitors who bring cars over on the ferry. So serious is that problem that moves are afoot to slap a $50 landing fee on vehicles and a similar smaller tax on individuals coming off the ferry. There is other evidence of growth: -increased demand for police and fire services, overuse of the dump, and problems with water quality.

Also of concern is aesthetics. Local regulations require new houses to use untreated cedar-shingle siding, which weathers over the years to characteristic New England gray. But at first, it's bright blond, making new houses stand out sharply, especially in treeless outlying areas.

But the heart of the difficulty here, as in any tourist area, is the ''quality of life'' issue - the need to ensure access for visitors while preserving the very attractions they come to see. In Nantucket's case, the attraction is a style of life that is secluded, historic, and relaxed.

Many islanders fear that quality is disappearing. In typical American fashion, their concern is summarized on a local bumper sticker. The message: ''It used to be nice in Nantucket.''

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