Cape Cod Resists Next Wave: Superstores

Residents of Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod fought against a proposed Costco superstore, saying it would ruin their town's historic, scenic character

IT'S midsummer on Cape Cod and the tourists are ubiquitous. Beach lovers flock to sandy shores, shoppers trek through the downtown stores and restaurants, and cars clog the streets.

Every year between April and November, this historic Massachusetts coastal resort area lures millions of visitors. But as the tide of visitors continues to rise, some here feel the area is being deluged by commercial development.

The issue comes into sharp focus here in Sandwich, a small town of 17,000 just south of the Cape Cod canal. Residents here are divided over a plan to build a discount ``Costco'' warehouse on a major highway through town.

Last March, the proposal to build the 120,000-square-foot store was denied by a regional planning agency, the Cape Cod Commission. That move prompted the store owner, PriceCostco of Kirkland, Wash., to file a lawsuit in April in Barnstable Superior Court against the commission. A trial will not likely take place until next year.

Preservationists say the lawsuit, which challenges the state constitutionality of the Cape Cod Commission Act and the commission itself, poses a serious threat to the region's future. The Cape Cod Commission, charged with controlling regional development over the say of local towns, was established in 1990 by the Cape Cod Commission Act.

In Sandwich, preservationists convinced the Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington to add Cape Cod to its 1994 list of ``America's Most Endangered Places'' last June. But while environmentalists argue that the the scenic character of the Cape is at risk, others see the region squeezed by an unfriendly business climate.

Costco fought hard for its proposal. But in the end, the commission ruled that the new store would bring in more than 4,700 vehicle trips per day and require road widening, new traffic lights, and a reconfiguring of the town center. Opponents were also concerned that the site, which sits near a well, would threaten the region's sole-source aquifer and town water supply.

Other towns on the Cape have mulled over superstores. A Sam's Club warehouse was proposed for Hyannis but is still awaiting action by the Cape Cod Commission. Likewise, last year, a Wal-Mart was proposed for Falmouth but later ruled out by the commission.

``The Cape is approached, surrounded, and bombarded by these large warehouses,'' says Jan Teehan, a Sandwich preservationist. ``The National Trust clearly saw the pattern that was beginning to surface on the Cape ... and that if these wholesale clubs were allowed to build, the character of the Cape would change.''

Sue Walker, a Costco opponent, agrees. She argues that people visit the Cape to enjoy its unique beauty. ``Why would anyone come here and spend $150 a night and see the same thing they have at home?'' she asks.

Proponents, on the other hand, say the store will bring in more business, more jobs, and broaden the town's tax base.

``We don't seem to be business-friendly and it's hard to balance what [kind of business] you want and who you get,'' says Sandwich selectman Ed Condon, a Costco supporter. ``The only thing we can do is start and get some sense of a business-friendly attitude,'' he adds.

Costco officials, for their part, contend that their proposed building would not have changed the character of Sandwich since the site was at an old gravel pit behind a Coca-cola plant. Meanwhile, officials point to a town vote in 1992 where residents voted 3-to-1 in favor of changing the gravel pit area from an industrial zone to a retail/wholesale zone.

But preservationists believe Cape Cod, site of the Pilgrim's first landing in the New World in 1620, is an endangered region. Constance Beaumont, director of state and local policy for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says more areas around the country are being overtaken by poorly planned ``superstore'' development.

Such stores tend to be built outside of town centers and attract similar stores that together make up unsightly commercial ``sprawl.''

``We're looking at a whole new phase of retailing,'' she says. ``In the 60s and 70s, we witnessed the proliferation of regional shopping centers. They took a heavy toll on downtown. Now the new retailing seems to occur with these superstores and power centers.''

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