While Cape Cod Struggles to Control Summer Stampede

On Martha's Vineyard, development is measured in cars. Especially the cars without bumper stickers reading "Pray for September."

"I see the clearest signs of growth in terms of traffic," says Vineyard resident Tom Seeman, adding that roads are growing increasingly clotted in summer.

Changes on the famous island are a microcosm of larger shifts buffeting Cape Cod, the 70-mile cowlick that juts out from the Massachusetts coast. The tourism-based economies of the Cape, the Vineyard, and its island neighbor Nantucket, are based on the area's natural beauty and historical charm.

But as in many of America's prized vacation spots, those very qualities are threatened by the crowds they attract. As population pressures and dwindling open space endanger the Cape area's fragile environment, conservationists and businesses are struggling to find solutions to stem damaging change without halting growth.

"We are being loved to death," says Kelley Pratt, director of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce. "Especially by summer visitors. People get upset at all our rules, but those rules are to protect it for everybody."

"Everybody" encompasses many more people now than it did 50 years ago. In that time, the Cape's population has quadrupled to more than 200,000. In the summer, that number jumps to 500,000 as visitors crowd the fishing villages and beaches. That's a modest rise compared with the quantum leap the Vineyard's population takes - from some 14,000 year-round to near 100,000.

But popularity comes at a cost. Property values in the region have skyrocketed with the population, sometimes pricing locals out of the market. The Cape's water quality is fragile and supply is uncertain. Urban planners expect a shortfall of more than 11 million gallons a day in 30 years. And they expect traffic on the already overburdened roads to slow to a docile 8 m.p.h. in rush hour.

"The forecasts for 2020 are fairly stark," says Armando Carbonell of the Cape Cod Commission, a land-use control agency. "We can't support these levels of development much longer."

A slew of groups are working on solutions. On Martha's Vineyard, the Land Bank collects 2 percent of each real estate transaction here and uses the money to buy land for preservation. The bank has bought 110,000 acres with the $31 million collected since its founding in 1986, inspiring the Cape to draft a plan for its own land bank.

Vineyard conservation groups are extremely active. The Sheep's Meadow foundation recently bought a classic saltbox house to tear down and turn into a nesting area for piping plovers and other waterfowl.

"Martha's Vineyard is really a leading-edge situation," says Wesley Ward of the Trustees of Reservations. The Massachusetts group, founded in 1891, also buys land throughout the Cape and the islands.

BUILDING anywhere on the islands or the Cape requires passing stringent permit processes. And for the first time this year, the number of cars that can be ferried to the Vineyard is limited.

Some suggest that the conservation fervor could put the Cape out of reach for ordinary tourists and middle-class homeowners, and that restricting access may not be the most democratic answer.

"We've got to provide for people who want to come here," says Peter Rosbeck, a home builder. He urges better use of waste-disposal technology and transportation. "We can tax cars to build more bike paths."

But providing for everyone may not be possible, says Mr. Ward. "Maybe not everyone can have what they want when there's a limited supply," he says. "The beauty here is a rare substance that needs to be conserved and rationed. That's why this is so difficult."

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