Economic Impact Review – Cape Cod Commission

Last Updated: May 29, 2013

The Cape Cod Commission was established in 1990 by Cape Cod voters concerned about the impact of rapid growth on the character of their communities. Made up of representatives of each of the Cape’s fifteen towns, the commission has the authority to review, and reject, development projects that could significantly impact the peninsula’s economy and environment. This includes proposals for commercial development over 10,000 square feet and housing subdivisions of thirty or more units. Applicants bear the burden of proving that a development’s benefits outweigh its detriments.

The commission does not supplant city planning boards, but rather adds a second layer of review for large projects, in which all of the region’s towns are given a say.

In making its decisions, the commission relies on a Regional Policy Plan, which outlines a broad vision for economic development and includes specific criteria (“minimum performance standards”) that proposals must meet in order to obtain approval. Updated every few years with input from residents, the Plan calls for fostering compact towns and preserving open space. It has detailed standards designed to protect the Cape’s economy, environment, character, and quality of life.

In its most recent plan, adopted in August 2012, the commission identifies as a goal the promotion of “economic activity that retains and attracts income to the region and benefits residents.” The Plan notes, “Money is added to the economic ‘pie’ either when products made locally are sold to non-residents (that is, exported) or when goods previously imported are made and sold locally (known as “import substitution”). The size of the pie is also affected by business ownership. Locally owned businesses retain and circulate money within the regional economy to a greater degree than non-local businesses. Locally owned businesses also create jobs at all skill and wage levels associated with their industries, and they are more likely to use local suppliers than non-local enterprises. As locally owned businesses support each other, opportunities for gainful employment and ownership increase for the Cape’s working-age residents.”

The specific standards for approving retail projects call for favoring small-scale, compact businesses in town centers and barring sprawling development.  “Creation or extension of strip development shall not be permitted,” the standards state.  Although not a firm mandate, the criteria encourage retail developers “to allow for local ownership of non-formula businesses consistent with the economic, environmental and community character goals” of the region.

Earlier versions of the Regional Policy Plan included similar guidelines and criteria.  Armed with this mandate, the Cape Cod Commission has turned down several big-box stores. Wal-Mart was denied a permit to build in Falmouth in 1993. A Sam’s Club proposal met the same fate in Hyannis. In 1994, the commission rejected a proposal for a 120,000-square-foot Costco on undeveloped land along the highway in Sandwich, concluding that it was inconsistent with the region’s planning goals and would have an adverse impact on traffic, the environment, and local businesses. Costco filed suit, challenging both the decision and the constitutionality of the commission itself, but eventually dropped the case. In 1997, facing strong opposition from residents and anticipated scrutiny from the commission, Home Depot walked away from plans to build in Yarmouth.

Not all large retail projects have been rejected, but, thanks to the commission’s review, those few that have won approval are smaller than their counterparts elsewhere and are located on sites that were already developed.  In Falmouth, Wal-Mart opened a 73,000-square-foot store in an empty Bradlees building, a defunct regional department store chain, while Home Depot was given the green light to take over another Bradlees in Hyannis, opening a store roughly 40 percent smaller than its standard outlet. In one of the commission’s most controversial decisions, it voted 7-6 to allow BJ’s Wholesale Club to build a 70,000-square-foot store on top of a former gravel pit in Hyannis.

In addition to its regulatory role, the commission undertakes various long-range regional studies and has an economic development program focused on high-wage jobs and small business creation. Despite perennial efforts by developers and others to have it dissolved, the Cape Cod Commission remains popular with residents, as evidenced both by surveys and a ballot initiative in 2000 in which voters supported expanding other aspects of regional government

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Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.