Helping hand or social engineering?
Those were the differing characterizations of the Cape Cod Commission made during last Friday’s debate at the 1717 Meetinghouse in West Barnstable.
Harwich selectman Robert J. McManus took the stand for the commission, while Bourne selectman Linda M. Zuern took the stand against.
About 100 people attended the event, which was titled “The Future of the Cape Cod Commission.”
Annual Town Meeting warrants in eight towns, including Bourne, Mashpee and Sandwich, contain petition articles asking the state Legislature to release that town from the authority of the Cape Cod Commission.
The Barnstable Town Council is scheduled tomorrow, Thursday, April 3, whether to place the question before that town’s voters on the ballot.
At Friday’s debate, Mr. McManus portrayed the commission as a revenue source for town initiatives, an organization that ensures that developers will pay mitigation fees, and an agency that regularly assists the town with planning and other assistance.
Harwich, Mr. McManus said, is receiving very good value from the commission.
Ms. Zuern, however, said the commission as it now exists, represents an extra layer of bureaucracy, an organization that engages in wasteful spending and an entity that is not transparent.
“It needs to be an option for the town,” she said.
Under the debate structure, both Ms. Zuern and Mr. McManus responded to several questions pertaining to issues affecting the Cape and the towns.
As for whether towns could handle the science of wastewater disposal on their own, Ms. Zuern said they could.
She saw the towns ready and willing to pursue alternative wastewater treatments, such as eco-toilets, that would be less costly than larger-scale solutions.
Ms. Zuern further said that towns are experienced with cooperating with each other on shared problems.
“We don’t need an organization to dictate from the top what the solutions should be,” she said.
But Mr. McManus said the commission has provided “tremendous help” to Harwich in wastewater planning.
He said the commission also helped obtain a federal grant to help cover the cost of an expensive water project in the town.
“Without the Cape Cod Commission’s assistance, I’m not sure we would have been aware of that,” Mr. McManus said.
In response to a question about the commission and the Cape’s tourism industry, Mr. McManus said the commission effectively slowed development and gave the towns a chance to preserve their open space and rural ambience which help attract visitors.
He specifically cited the commission’s role in helping develop the Harwich-Chatham branch of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a popular draw for tourists.
Ms. Zuern said the commission has been an inhibiting factor to the development of a large parcel off the Bourne Rotary, land that she said could have hosted a mixed-use development or a large hotel.
She said the commission has not played a role in Bourne’s tourism business.
“The Cape Cod Commission may be an overseer, but it has not helped us,” Ms. Zuern said.
Asked whether town representatives on the commission should be elected rather than appointed, Ms. Zuern said she was more concerned about rules that prevent selectmen from discussing issues before the commission with those representatives.
But Mr. McManus said the restrictions on board communication with town commission representatives are proper, given the quasi-judicial rulings those representatives must make.
A lack of such restrictions, he said, can lead to strong-arm, back-room pressure. “That’s what we don’t want,” he said.
Regarding the commission’s rejection of a proposal by Lowe’s to put a large home improvement store in Dennis, Mr. McManus said he believes the store effectively would have driven a number of smaller retailers out of business.
Ms. Zuern said the commission should not become involved in planning decisions unless requested to do so by the town where a project is proposed.
She further said that the commission was engaging in “social engineering” by determining what kinds of businesses should be allowed on the Cape and which ones should not.
In summary, Ms. Zuern said the time has come to revamp or even dismantle the commission, which she said has failed in its mission to rein in rampant growth.
The Cape, she said, has fallen prey to suburbanization on the commission’s watch, complete with drug-infested neighborhoods.
Other coastal towns off-Cape get along fine without a regional commission, she said.
Ms. Zuern called for eliminating the tax that supports the commission, and taking away its regulatory powers.
But Mr. McManus said the commission has benefitted towns on the Cape by securing money from developers to mitigate the effects of their projects. Towns such as Harwich, he said, have been able to use those funds for improvements in areas such as traffic safety.
Mr. McManus also said that the key problem facing the Cape has shifted over the past 25 years from overdevelopment to wastewater disposal. The commission, he said, has shifted its focus accordingly.
“The activities of the Cape Cod Commission [are] the best hope we have in dealing with the problem,” he said.