Tensions between local environmentalists and housing advocates have long played out in battles to preserve local land while making sure people can afford to live on Cape Cod.
“There’s [been] an attempt to put in a couple Habitat for Humanity houses in Wellfleet that has been fought by the neighbors,” said John Cumbler, an environmental historian and member of the Wellfleet Conservation Commission, among other committees. “That’s been tied up in the courts for years over one obstacle after another. ‘The driveway’s too steep;’ ‘the water quality isn’t up to par,’ etc.”
Similar conflicts are part of the reason why just 2 or 3 percent of the housing stock on Cape Cod is affordable by state standards, despite goals to reach 10 percent affordability in each town.
“My favorite expression in Wellfleet is, ‘I'm all in favor of affordable housing, but….’ There is always a ‘but,’” Cumbler said.
The effect of an endless cycle of conflict between environmentalists and housing advocates is that one or both sides always seems to be on the losing end, while the amount of undeveloped and unprotected land on the Cape has dwindled.
With that in mind, two local nonprofits: the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC) and Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) are working together on the front end with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Barnstable County Economic Development Council (BCEDC). Their big goal is to agree in advance on where to put new, affordable housing without putting more burden on the environment.
“So it's an exciting project,” said Don Keeran, assistant director at APCC.
How It Will Work
Keeran’s team will start with an essentially blank map of Cape Cod. Then they’ll add on a map with critical habitats, areas where there are drinking water supplies, and preserved open space.
“So that’s the critical natural resource areas that define the Cape,” he noted.
From there, they’ll layer on a map that highlights the growth activity centers around the region, including town centers and main streets, where jobs, and public transportation are mostly located.
And after all that data is layered on… that’s when the work really starts.
“What lies in between is going to be the interesting part to... determine where we should be directing our growth in the future, where we should be directing our housing production, in particular,” he said, “so that it has the greatest economic value and the greatest environmental value for the Cape.”
Wastewater to Dictate Housing Development
“The most obvious places for housing will be the places where sewer is already planned,” said Alisa Magnotta, CEO of HAC.
Wherever there’s development like affordable housing, she said, wastewater follows. The question is how to get rid of that wastewater, and the options are septic or sewer.
“Well, 85 percent of the Cape is on private septic systems,” Keeran said, “which do little to nothing to filter out the nutrients that are produced from our wastewater.”
“And so when you look around the Cape, you can see that we don't have a lot of apartment buildings and we don't have a lot of even high density areas,” Magnotta said. “And partly, that has been by design for our environment, and the fact that we didn’t have the infrastructure for sewers.”
So the work of this new collaboration is to jointly develop a tool that helps them find common ground, target areas that already have sewers or plans to sewer, and reconcile competing interests.
And while Magnotta says the partnership will require some spirited discussions, now, more than ever, the collaborators see the importance of this work.
“That’s what’s bringing our agencies together,” Magnotta said. “We're finding that balance. We’re finding that pathway… so that we are preserving and protecting not only the environment, but our way of life on Cape Cod.”
Once the agencies have their data assembled, their next step will be to approach towns with potential solutions.