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Cape Cod ponders the cost of urbanization

TWO years ago Middlecott Lane was part of a fairway on the Brewster Golf Course. Today, where sand traps once yawned, there are condominiums. Soon the 32 condos on Middlecott Lane will be surrounded by nearly a thousand others, all covering the rolling hills of what was, until recently, a golf course. Notwithstanding the fact that ``The Villages at Ocean Edge'' are about as far from the ocean's edge as you can get on Cape Cod, the soon-to-be sprawling development exemplifies an increasingly serious challenge facing the Cape: How to manage growth.

Clearly, picturesque Cape Cod is changing. Once known for its ``rural, seaside charm,'' the peninsula is sprouting subdivisions of retirement and vacation houses. Shopping centers and fast-food restaurants are going up nearly as quickly. All that growth is putting pressure on the Cape's resources.

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Esther Snyder, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod (APCC), says the Cape's charm, natural resources, and history need to be guarded. ``If the Cape is overdeveloped,'' she points out, ``it will lose its very value.

``People come to the Cape because it's different,'' she says. Her group is working to preserve ``the kind of Cape Cod we feel is a state and national asset.''

Ms. Snyder says she is not an advocate of ``no growth.'' But, she explains, her organization is supporting a move toward ``caring growth.''

The APCC released a report last week entitled ``Options for Cape Cod's future.'' It lays out questions and proposes an agenda for handling development issues on the Cape in coming years. The report says that although the Cape's building boom over the past 15 years has been dramatic, ``the dimensions of growth over the next 16 years are enormous.''

On page one it states: ``In fewer than 20 years, it is likely that there will be more people on Cape Cod in the summer than live in the city of Boston.''

Year-round residents will number almost 216,000 by the end of the century, the report predicts, as opposed to fewer than 150,000 in 1980. The summer population will swell from about 375,000 to just under 500,000 over the same period, it says.

The irony is that the Cape is not actually overbuilt. Nor is it nearing its saturation point, says Ms. Snyder. Although some of the resources on this fragile peninsula are being taxed to the utmost, there is a lot of undeveloped land.

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Only one-quarter of the land is built up. Another quarter is held in public lands such as the Cape Cod National Seashore. So, theoretically, half of the narrow peninsula could be paved over.

And that is just what so many do not want to happen. The APCC is not just concerned with limited water supplies or snarled traffic. The group is also concerned about intangibles, such as the character and look of the Cape and the quality of life for year-round residents.

Ms. Snyder says the zoning laws of towns on the Cape will not slow growth. Neither will limited water resources or traffic jams. But, she says, it's time for action. ``We've lost a decade in terms of population pressure,'' she says. ``We're running out of time.''

Residents of Brewster have recently taken steps to manage growth in their town.

To a resident of Boston or Hartford, Brewster's year-round population of 6,500 might seem minuscule. But Brewster has been one of the fastest-growing towns in Massachusetts for the past decade, with a growth rate approaching 200 percent. As recently as 1970, the town had only 1,800 year-round residents.

Robert A. Sawtelle, one of Brewster's three selectmen, says that for years the town had ``a low population and plenty of open land.''

For years the minimum size for a building lot was 15,000 square feet, or about a third of an acre. Recently, town residents have voted to raise the minimum to 25,000 square feet, then to 40,000, and finally last year to 60,000 square feet per lot -- just under an acre and a half.

``The [building] density will be restricted so that we aren't overbuilt,'' Mr. Sawtelle says. The golf course development, The Villages at Ocean Edge, is sure to be the last big project in this town.

But Lawrence B. Doyle, another selectman, says, ``You can only go so far in putting up lot sizes.'' Rezoning has clearly not solved all of Brewster's development problems.

At an acre and a half, lots in Brewster sell for between $30,000 and $45,000. ``A lot of people can't afford to live here now,'' Mr. Doyle says. And that has created a situation that many people never expected to see on Cape Cod, he says, homeless families and individuals. Because there is so little public housing available on the Cape, the state welfare department is putting the homeless up in motels this winter.

Doyle says town officials ``are honest enough to say that we don't know what to do [to manage growth on the Cape].'' The APCC has offered several suggestions -- the first being that towns coordinate their efforts.

Ms. Snyder says many issues -- such as water quality, garbage disposal, and traffic -- transcend town boundaries. ``Some of the Cape's problems must literally be solved at the regional level,'' she declares.

Since Barnstable County is Cape Cod, she says, it makes sense to have a county government with some authority.

In December, a bill was filed in the state legislature to authorize creation of a charter commission. It would draft a charter to give the county government legislative authority and the power to levy taxes. The charter would have to be approved by Cape voters.

The process will take a lot of time, Ms. Snyder says, but ``I think the voters are ready.''

The intent of the charter movement is similar to that of a proposal by Brewster selectman Sawtelle. He has suggested to his counterparts across the Cape that all town boards and groups that deal with development coordinate their efforts.

Sawtelle says the Brewster Conservation Commission should work with those in other Cape towns, as should zoning boards, sewer commissions, and planning boards.

``The thrust is to get the 15 towns to go in on anything and everything having to do with growth,'' he says.

Because there is so much undeveloped land on the Cape, the APCC also suggests that towns buy up as much of it as possible in order to preserve natural areas.

Recognizing that this can be quite costly for towns with 5,000 to 10,000 residents, the association recommends instituting a land transfer tax, similar to one enacted in 1983 on Nantucket, where a fund has been established for buying up beachlands, marshes, and moors. Much of the money for this fund comes from a 2 percent tax on the purchase price of land transfers. According to the APCC, this is raising about $2 million a year.

The APCC projects that $5 million might be raised annually on the Cape from such a tax system. That is hardly a lordly sum when it comes to buying up large parcels of land, yet the association says it would allow towns to buy up particularly worthwhile parcels of land while they are still available.

A third recommendation of the APCC's report is that each town hire a professional planner. Traditionally, Cape towns have relied on volunteer planning boards for community planning. But the APCC says the rigors of considering large condominium proposals, whole subdivisions, and commercial development can overtax such boards. The solution, says the association, is to have professionals running the show -- something only one in three Cape towns has at present.

Ms. Snyder says ``ground-water management is the big issue for the Cape.'' The water supply is sufficient to meet present needs. But every Cape town receives its water from the same underground aquifer, so the threat of pollution is the significant concern. The APCC recommends that towns strictly enforce laws and procedures regarding septic systems.

The Cape has made significant progress in recent years in dealing with its garbage. Most town landfills are expected to fill up within 10 to 15 years. There are few parcels of land available on the Cape large enough to be used for dumps in later years. And since it takes eight or more years to find and develop an alternative site, or find other ways of getting rid of trash, it appeared the Cape towns were close to the crisis point. But several towns have entered into contracts with a waste recycling company that will burn the trash to produce energy. Other towns are expected to follow suit shortly. It will still be a number of years before the plant is in operation.

A third problem that is unavoidable for any summer visitor to the Cape is its traffic jams. The APCC holds out little hope that the Cape will sprout new highways or widen and straighten its present roads. The report says the greatest hope for alleviating the traffic congestion lies in the judicious use of mass transit. And though there is little hope of obtaining a federal transit subsidy under the current administration in Washington, the APCC does see potential for a comprehensive mass transit system, using buses to link Cape towns. -- 30 --

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