Let’s rethink the use of Joint Base Cape Cod

Housing, water supply protection should take priority

THE AIR FORCE’S suspension of intelligence activity performed at Joint Base Cape Cod eliminates the primary service mission of the base. The leak of sensitive intelligence from a service member is a national security disaster that has raised many questions that can only be answered within and by the Department of Defense. It does, however, highlight the need for the Commonwealth to take a hard look at the highest and best uses of the land at the base to determine the best use of this asset and to revisit the lease extension quietly issued at the end of the Baker administration.

With the suspension of the intelligence mission, the rethinking of the use of the base provides a generational opportunity to solve some of the Cape’s most difficult economic and environmental challenges. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod has suggested that the Healey administration formally evaluate retaining remaining essential base functions such as the Coast Guard while utilizing the underdeveloped, already disturbed areas of the base to develop much-needed housing to help address the Cape’s lack of affordable housing. That action should be paired with strengthening the current faux protections of the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve on the northern 15,000 acres with a permanent conservation restriction.

Established in 1968, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod is the region’s leading nonprofit environmental organization, working for the adoption of laws, policies, and programs that protect and enhance the Cape’s natural resources and quality of life.

While the association is not a housing advocacy organization, we recognize that the utilization of the already disturbed, underdeveloped, and underutilized portions of the base provides an opportunity for redevelopment that would go a long way toward infusing enough new units of housing into the market to make a difference. With the Commonwealth as the landowner, there is a chance to develop in a way that protects a mix of new rental and ownership units from being swept up into the red-hot real estate market, maintaining true affordability and filling a much-needed void in the housing market.

There is an opportunity here to plan a vibrant carbon-neutral community with heating and cooling provided by redevelopment of the wastewater treatment plant at the base to include anaerobic digestion and power provided by renewable energy. There is clearly a case to be made here that using a portion of the base for housing is the single most transformative step that can be taken to address the housing needs of the region with minimal environmental impact and a positive net effect on the climate.

The opportunity to implement real and permanent protections to the 15,000 acres that comprise the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve is the most significant open space preservation project remaining on Cape Cod. The reserve protects and provides water to five Cape communities and is the largest remaining contiguous forested area remaining outside of the National Seashore. The reserve is also vulnerable to misuse and destruction as evidenced by the Massachusetts National Guard’s ongoing pursuit to clear cut forest to create the proposed multipurpose machine gun range recently identified by the EPA as an unacceptable threat to the water supply of the Upper Cape. This area deserves lasting protections and now is the time to create them.

The behind-the-scenes and largely hidden from public view 50-year lease extension to the year 2099 that was pushed through in the closing months of the Baker administration represents a major roadblock to optimizing the highest and best use of that land for housing and water supply protection.

The association filed a public records request with the National Guard regarding the lease extension process and digitized the almost 2,000-page paper response provided by the Guard. A review of the record from the Guard’s own words reveals an overt effort to obtain the lease with minimal public process. The lack of a public airing of the alternative uses of this land robbed the region of the chance to discuss the best ways to protect the Cape’s water supply, address our housing needs, and maintain critical military functions at the base. A thorough review of the best uses of the base was thwarted by the lack of public engagement in the lease extension. Now is the time to see if this lost opportunity can be reclaimed.

Meet the Author

Andrew Gottlieb

Executive director, Association to Preserve Cape Cod
The Association to Preserve Cape Cod realizes that what we are proposing here reflects a major undertaking that challenges some of the accepted norms governing Cape Cod. That said, the climate, water, and housing challenges we face require transformational thinking. We are simply not going to solve these persistent and large problems without being willing to challenge and alter the status quo.  A complete and open discussion may well lead to finding solutions that meet the Cape and the Commonwealth’s needs for the future.

Andrew Gottlieb is executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

Let’s rethink the use of Joint Base Cape Cod