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Environmental group calls for halt to development on Cape’s ‘undisturbed’ land

A new home being built in Woods Hole
S Junker
A new home being built in Woods Hole

Rapid development over the last few decades has fragmented the Cape’s critical habitats, impaired drinking water, and degraded water quality, according to a new report from the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. Now, the environmental organization based in Dennis is urging towns and developers to stop building on undisturbed land, saying the Cape’s housing needs can be met elsewhere.

The report, “Hanging in the Balance,” found that between 2002 and 2019, the Cape lost approximately 3,400 football fields worth of forestland to development — primarily to the development of single-family homes, multi-family housing, and commercial and industrial buildings. The impacts on native plants and animals have been far-ranging.

The research shows that today land on Cape Cod can be divided into three categories: 46% is developed, 40% is protected open space, and the remaining 14% is what’s called undeveloped, unprotected land. Much of that category is considered “priority natural resource areas.”

Andrew Gottlieb of APCC says those acres need to be treated with extreme care.

“If we dedicate the remaining 14% of unprotected, undisturbed open space to housing, we will have put the Cape on perhaps an irretrievable path toward being a very inhospitable place to live, with lousy water quality and poor environmental integrity,” he said.

Recently, water quality reports showed that 90% of assessed embayments and 39% of assessed freshwater ponds on the Cape have unacceptable water quality due to excess nutrients.

Development near coastlines has caused the Cape to lose an estimated 36% of its salt marshes since European settlement.

A coastal sprawl is well under way, but it hasn't helped bring affordable housing options for the Cape’s workforce or low-to-middle-income community members. Housing Assistance Corporation Cape Cod estimates 4,500 year-round rental needs go unmet because of a lack of affordable housing stock. Some Cape developers and local officials maintain the necessity of balancing environmental concerns with the shortage and ongoing need for new housing.

The way forward, Gottlieb said, is not to build apartment buildings and housing developments on what remains of the Cape’s undeveloped and unprotected land, but to revitalize developed areas that have seen their heyday come and go.

“Concentrating development in already disturbed areas,” he said, “downtown centers that would benefit from more intense redevelopment, is the place to go.”

Meanwhile, he said, towns and conservation organizations need to step up.

“[We need] areas that are currently open space protected through some combination of change of zoning, acquisition by land trusts, public acquisition,” Gottlieb said, “for the use of future generations.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.