Protecting Cape Cod from explosive growth

Cape Cod may never become the Miami Beach of the Northeast, or even a king-size Coney Island, but it is inching in that direction. While much of the area's charm remains, a building boom over the last two decades has substantially urbanized what had been largely rural towns with pine woods, surf-lapped beaches, and historic saltbox cottages.

Many concerned Cape Codders - longtime residents and newcomers alike - are banding together to preserve the quaintness and beauty of their very special corner of Massachusetts.

From Bourne on the canal to Provincetown, environmental activists and others committed to stemming the building tide are circulating petitions for two referendums on next November's ballot throughout Barnstable County.

The nonbinding proposals call on state lawmakers to provide a one-year moratorium on construction within the cape's 15 towns. Public-works projects, affordable housing, and owner-occupied single-family homes would be exempt.

Similarly being sought is legislative approval of what amounts to a county regional planning agency. Such a panel could help coordinate future development among the towns, before another building boom hits the cape, where the year-round population has more than doubled, from 73,557 to 161,939, since 1965.

The intent is not to bring all building to a halt but rather to make sure that future private development projects preserve the area's unique character and do not overtax available water supplies.

To get on the ballot both petitions need the signatures of at least 200 voters in each of the five legislative districts into which Barnstable County will be rezoned starting next January.

Although it is uncertain how much grass-roots support the proposals have, those leading the charge, like Esther Snyder of Falmouth, a former executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, appear optimistic.

The possibility of a development moratorium for the cape is included in the recently released draft report by the governor's Special Commission on Environmental Operations, chaired by former US Sen. Paul Tsongas.

Miss Snyder, who serves on that 23-member commission, says that although it might have been better if the current move to control development had begun several years ago, much can still be accomplished. ``We must be ready for the next boom,'' she says.

Projects involving cluster or town-house residential complexes, motels, and commercial structures could be particularly affected. Those planning such construction, or holding onto land in hopes that of some day selling it to developers, are hardly thrilled at the prospects of future land management, which might diminish the value of their undeveloped property.

Critics of the moratorium proposal are organizing. They warn that it could deprive local residents of job opportunities in construction and related fields, and could weaken the cape's economy.

Some year-round cape residents, who came there to enjoy peace and quiet, especially in the off-season when things are less crowded, have been putting their homes on the market and moving elsewhere to get away from what they consider as too much hustle and bustle.

Most Cape Codders, however, appear to be taking the changes in stride.

The moratorium, if approved, would not be the complete answer to the cape's problems of overcrowding. Nor would creation of a regional planning agency guarantee the area's future as a pleasant place to live and work as well as to visit and vacation.

The planning agency would be only as good as its members, the extent of their authority, and the degree to which the various towns work together in coming to grips with mutual challenges, including not only water supply but waste disposal, traffic congestion, and protection of the fragile shoreline.

A lot stiffer zoning controls may be needed, especially in some of the more built-up towns on the southern edge of the cape.

There has been speculation about offering special incentives to property owners to either hold onto or sell their woods, fields, or marshlands to state or local government.

The requirement of an environmental-impact study, involving new or expanded commercial structures or housing developments of three or more units, before new construction anywhere on the cape can begin, is also being discussed.

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