Every town on Cape Cod is encouraged to have a local comprehensive plan, developed in accordance with its residents’ expressed priorities, updated every 10 years, and certified by the Cape Cod Commission — the Cape’s regional planning agency. Only two of 15 towns do.
“Ten years goes by pretty quickly,” said Jon Idman, the commission’s chief regulatory officer. “Towns would spend tons of money on consultants and write these huge tomes and then 10 years would come up and they would say, ‘We just don’t have the resources to do this again.’ The focus should have been on implementation, not just developing a plan to put on a shelf.”
To remedy the situation, the Cape Cod Commission changed its rules for certification earlier this year.
“If the process you have discourages the development of plans and discourages certification that’s supposed to create a regional planning network, then you have to update your process,” Idman told the Independent.
As a result, town governments on the Outer Cape are now digging back in to the task. To gain commission certification, which can ease certain regulatory processes, towns may now update certain sections of their plans — like housing and capital expenditures — regularly without overhauling the entire document. These sections are “necessarily iterative,” said Idman, and are already part of state planning requirements.
An example of something that might trigger a full rewrite, Idman said, is climate change.
“That’s been on the planning radar for decades,” he said, “but certainly in the last five years there’s been more recognition of how pervasive and pressing an issue it is.”
Wellfleet Tries Again
Wellfleet, which last updated its local comprehensive plan in 2008, formed a committee in February 2016 to begin work on a new plan with the goal of bringing it to town meeting in the fall of 2017. In spite of a promising start, with several well-attended public meetings, the process was not completed.
In March 2018 Assistant Town Administrator Brian Carlson, who had been leading the planning work, left town for another job. His departure, combined with reports of the pending updates to the commission’s certification requirements, led the town to set the project aside until last month, said the town’s director of community services, Suzanne Grout Thomas.
Thomas is now in charge of getting the plan updated. She said she and a seven-member committee are hoping to have a draft out to all town boards and committees for comment by the end of December.
“We still have all the data from the public meetings in 2016 on shellfish, housing, climate change, and other general meetings,” said Thomas. The new draft plan will weave citizens’ vision for the town into a roughly 20-page narrative summary, followed by appendices, she said.
“We want to make it readable,” said Thomas. “If you’re busy and you want to know the general vision, you can sit down and read a 20-page document. If you want to zero in on any one topic, you can check out the appendices or footnotes and explore that area more carefully. We want to make it absolutely accessible to the citizens and taxpayers of Wellfleet.”
The appendices will include recent plans for hazard mitigation and housing needs.
Truro is in a similar boat, according to new Town Planner Jeff Ribeiro, who until last month held the same position in Provincetown. “Very few towns on the Cape have any kind of recent plan,” he told the Independent, “but that doesn’t mean they haven’t done other planning work.”
Truro’s local comprehensive plan was last updated in 2005, but its housing needs and assessment plan was redone in 2015, followed by a new hazard mitigation plan in 2017. Provincetown’s LCP was last updated in 2000, and Eastham’s in 2012.
“If you want to move forward on any of these big-picture priorities, you have to have the staff to do it,” said Ribeiro. Truro and Eastham have dedicated town planners, while Provincetown is currently looking to hire someone to fill Ribeiro’s former position. Wellfleet’s assistant town administrator works “on projects that a town planner might work on,” according to Town Administrator Dan Hoort, but the town does not have any dedicated planning staff.
Eastham has a five-year strategic plan that is being finalized. The town’s strategic planning committee has been working for a couple of years to identify local priorities that will guide town actions over the next five years and provide a framework for updating the local comprehensive plan.
The town contracted with the consultants from JM Goldson to prepare the strategic plan and to hold public forums to solicit feedback from residents. They named these goals: preserving natural resources and open space, welcoming a diversity of residents and housing options, improving safety on Route 6, and “branding” the town.
The Eastham planning committee is scheduled to hold its final meeting on Nov. 18 before presenting an executive summary of the plan to the select board on Dec. 2.
Most Outer Cape towns cite protecting natural resources, improving economic vitality, and increasing affordable housing as top priorities.
“It’s critically important that a town focuses on those values and resources that are unique to their place,” said Idman. “And at the same time, through the updated certification process, we want to build a bridge all the way to the highest level of the region. We believe that using this process we can respect the unique features of a town’s plan while still tying it to the mutuality and commonalities that we have from place to place.”
Ryan Fitzgerald contributed reporting to this article from Eastham.