By John Hanright
Here at Cape Cod Community College (4Cs), there was an informative and engaging bipartisan discussion of politics on Cape Cod and the Islands and the long-term future of its residents.
This event, “Policy Summit: An Agenda for the Cape and Islands,” was organized by numerous people and organizations and was led by freshman State Senator Julian Cyr. The summit was originally scheduled for January 7, but inclement weather forced its postponement to Saturday, March 4, which incidentally was two months to the day of Cyr’s swearing in.
Upon entering Tilden Arts Center, where the summit convened, attendees were checked in and then selected a program. The programs were color-coded for each of the six different working group forums situated around the campus: raising a family, working, living, serving, preserving, and aging on Cape Cod & the Islands.
“I want to actively seek input from all Cape Codders, not just the self-described policy wonks and well-established leaders. To solve challenges, we need input, participation, and out-of-the-box thinking from everybody,” Cyr stated while introducing the summit.
Congressman Bill Keating, who represents Massachusetts’ 9th congressional district, was also in attendance, and Cyr turned the mic over to Keating for some opening remarks.
Cyr, who has already filed at the statehouse approximately 27 pieces of legislation, claimed one of his bills would enable first-time home buyers to save for a single-family home by designating it as a tax-deductible savings account for this purpose. Another, he said, increases the ease of affording property taxes for people on fixed incomes and provides an additional tax break to older residents.
After informing the 200+ person audience of the working group structure, people dispersed according to their chosen groups.
Moderator and 4Cs American Government professor Mark Forest informed the four-person panel and the 40+ people in the audience that the working group had an hour and 15 minutes to approach and discuss three different topics.
The four panelists included Ann Van Vleck, executive director of the Cape Cod Young Professionals (CCYP), Heather Harper of the Cape Cod Commission, Teresa Martin, president of Cape Eyes and former member of the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, and Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.
Harper stated the issues that are “challenges to a stable work environment.” She included in this list infrastructure “whether that is broadband or having appropriate water and wastewater infrastructure,” and an acknowledgment of our service sector-based economy with some potential for growth in the blue economy and in technology.
A gentleman from Provincetown said “I’d like to see us promote, encourage, and expand our research institutions,” such as the Center for Coastal Studies, Marine Biological Laboratory, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Tilden Arts Center’s Technical Director, Brian Rice, said “We have a great arts economy, but it’s run by a lot of volunteers.” Rice suggested doing more to encourage the arts as a viable career and not merely as a hobby.
Harper also said that residents and elected officials should anticipate business growth and have a “clear regulatory environment” for land use, consider the wage differential between the rate of pay for workers off-Cape versus on-Cape, and rework the housing market place, which she considers the highest priority due to its effect on quality employees filling limited job openings.
In her work, Van Vleck noticed that there is “a disconnect between very qualified young professionals who are looking for work and the positions that are available for them,” a problem which she partially attributes to employers “recruiting off-Cape.”
Van Vleck added the fact that “over 80%” of 5,000 people who participated in a CCYP “Shape the Cape” survey said “they were happy in the jobs that they had.” However, she said that a “huge percentage” of these respondents said they did not see room for growth in their employment and they are not looking for entry-level positions but mid-level positions.
Housing was one overarching concern to which people in the discussion returned. “If [workers] come down here and they’re spending their entire paycheck to afford a place to live that they’re sharing with four, five, or six other people, how are we going to expect that we are going to attract a workforce?” asked Rice.
Some proposed solutions to housing were to allow greater leeway in accessory apartments, streamlining zoning restrictions, closing the loophole in the occupancy tax on single-family short-term rentals, multigenerational housing (such as older parents living with their middle-aged children), and funding more affordable housing projects.
“We’re looking at communities across the Cape reinvesting in their accessory dwelling unit bylaws,” said Harper. “Currently, many of the bylaws require a special permit by the zoning board, as well as some income qualifications so that those units comply with subsidized housing guidelines.”
As an example of an out-of-the-box approach to housing, Forest mentioned a plan in Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard, to utilize a single-family lot to build “four 400-600 square foot units, suitable for one person or maybe two” that will use the same septic system.
Forest also broached the subject of transportation infrastructure. One business owner related his difficulty getting from the Cape to Logan Airport and back in one day. Michael Blanton, a Bourne selectman, suggested restoring high-speed commuter rail service to the Cape.
An older woman also spoke of the headache of getting around on the Lower and Outer Cape. She said, “If you live in Orleans and you have a job in Provincetown, you can’t get there if you don’t have a car. If you get on the CCRTA bus in Harwich, it takes you an hour and a half to get up to Wellfleet.”
Because the working groups went behind schedule, the Studio Theater cleared out pretty quickly to reconvene in the main auditorium. Cyr briefly spoke before turning over the mic to the groups to report on their findings.
When asked afterward if people should expect to hear about a summit on the islands, Cyr said, “Today was so successful that I think we’d like to do one on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. And we’re also going to look to do something on the Outer Cape.”