A Visit with Armando Carbonell

Few people know the practical, ground-level challenges of land-use planning–especially in a place like Cape Cod–as well as Armando Carbonell. A resident of Barnstable, Carbonell was the executive director of the Cape Cod Commission from its creation in 1990 until this spring, when he stepped down to take a position at the Massachusetts-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. During his tenure, the CCC grew into a powerful agency – too powerful, according to some developers – that attempted to control growth on the Cape and to articulate the public interest in development and environmental issues.

At the Lincoln Institute, Carbonell will be directing a “land as common property” project. “It is a way of understanding property rights,” Carbonell explains. “There are important private property rights, and there are also common property rights – the public interest in land, the obligation landowners have to others.” Established in 1974, the Lincoln Institute studies land policy and property taxation issues in the United States and around the world. One of several areas Carbonell plans to emphasize in his new post is the promotion of ecological education for local planners, public officials, and developers. “It’s certainly of great interest to planners, but I think most planners are not trained in this,” he says. “The idea that you really need to understand the ability to support development in terms of natural and human systems – it sounds commonsensical, but it’s not the way we do planning for the most part. And most communities don’t know the answer to the question, ‘Do we have the ability to support the growth that is taking place?'”

I visited Carbonell a few weeks into his new job at the Lincoln Institute’s stately house on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I asked him to speak about the challenges of balancing economic development with environmental protection in the place he knows best – Cape Cod.

“I’d be the last person to say it’s an easy thing to do. Cape Cod is viewed in the planning world as the easy place to do this kind of thing. Because it’s so well defined as a region, there really is some acceptance of it as a region. The sensitivity of the environment is well established. The information that is needed to manage the place is available in greater depth than for most other places. I have to point out that it is a place of 15 New England towns with as much dedication to the principle of home rule as any New England towns anywhere else. I’d say we’re dealing largely with the same set of ideas about development that you’d find elsewhere. But I suppose the difference is that understanding of the environmental limits is at a more general level than at other places. It’s a community that really knows the limits of its water supply, the great difficulty of supporting large populations on a very thin piece of land. That is an advantage – the awareness of the environmental constraints.

But even so, the mechanics of doing planning and working out the balance are challenging. I think it’s about translating that general community consensus into more specific kinds of decisions. The main key there has been a very participative process. The Cape Cod Commission came out of a grass-roots movement to change the way planning is done and land use is managed. The commission, once it was in business, really engaged in a continuing public discussion in producing regional plans, working in the communities on local plans, reviewing development projects, all done with many public meetings and a lot of debate and discussion and input. Over time, you create a kind of culture of planning that gives people a comfort in the decision process. They feel that there are vehicles for speaking up about projects, good and bad. An entity like the Cape Cod Commission was able to become responsive to the community by providing opportunities for people to speak very concretely about what they wanted to see happening. ”

The Cape Cod Commission, I gather, had some rocky times with the business community on the Cape.

“Well, it came into being in 1990, at a time when the economy had peaked and was moving into pretty serious recession after a rapid period of growth and a high level of economic activity. I think it is difficult to do this kind of planning and growth management in times of economic and financial hardship. There’s no question. I think the pattern is that most communities think about growth when it’s happening before their eyes. It’s very hard to get people interested in growth management at times when growth is not happening. The impetus for the Cape Cod Commission Act was the high-growth period of the 1980s, when we had up to 5,000 residential permits a year being approved, and a tremendous volume of development activity. In the early ’90s that was not the case. The business community was feeling a bit pressed. Economic conditions were not too happy. That contributed to some of the tension around the early days of the commission. ”

And yet from what I read, 1994 was a year of revolt, and some in the business community were speaking out about the commission having grown too large and being overly bureaucratic.

“I think it’s healthy to listen to criticism and the commission was very open to it. It can be difficult. I think any organization can become set in its ways. Some of the reforms that were adopted seemed very difficult to accept, and yet once they were tried out they proved to be quite feasible and actually improved the functioning of the agency. I’ll give just one small example. The commission had adopted the practice of appointing subcommittees to conduct the hearing process for developments – go out to the community, hold public hearings, meet with the developer, make a recommendation to the full commission. The commission would act on that record. There was no hearing in front of the full commission. That’s the way the rules were set up. And for several years they operated that way, deferring to the subcommittee that had held the public hearing and not allowing the proponent or any opponents of the project to speak to the full commission. This was very objectionable to people in the development community in particular, and it was difficult for the commission to see how it might change that rule without a lot of bad results – the commission meetings going on for hours, days, and weeks, the subcommittee’s work being set aside, all sorts of concerns. Well, I think it’s turned out over the several years that the commission has held a public hearing in front of the full commission for every development with regional impact, that it’s actually a very useful thing to do and it does not disrupt the process in any significant way. It may seem a small thing, but it was very difficult to tell people coming in front of this regulatory body that they couldn’t speak to it, because the public hearing was closed. I found that, as the person sitting in front of project proponents, a very hard thing to say, and I had to say it on a number of occasions on behalf of the commission. So I was very pleased with that change – one of the small ways in which the tone of the commission process has changed to be more open, and I think the commission has had the opportunity to explain itself better as a result.”

In many parts of the country, at least places I’ve been, the planning process can be a bit of a rubber stamp. It can be a full-speed-ahead, let’s build, build, build sort of process without a lot of public input. I think there’s still a sense among the business community that even the word “planning” is something of a bugaboo: Why are some officials better equipped to know whether we should put a strip mall down this highway than some developer who’s got the capital?

“I think you need a context to really evaluate that. It has to be one in which people can get together around a vision of their own community. Speaking from the common property program about the public realm and the public interest in land, this is another kind of property right.

“There are the private property rights of individuals. . .but there are also the rights the public can claim.”
There are the private property rights of individuals who want to build things and these are legitimate. But there are also the rights that the public can claim in terms of the effects of that activity. The good news is that I think people can get together around these things in ways which are mutually beneficial and which work. The lack of planning and the lack of good process doesn’t lead to unfettered successful expansion as much as it leads to chaos and dysfunctional systems. I’ll just tell you what one wants to avoid, I think. Metropolitan Atlanta has reached a point where sprawl is so bad, congestion is so bad, uncoordinated development has such bad impacts that businesses began to scream that they could not expand in the place that they really wanted to because there had been such a breakdown in the infrastructure and in the functioning of the larger metropolitan system. As a result, a very powerful land-use control agency was created just recently – and it remains to be seen how it will function – but it will have great power in terms of making decisions around developments through issuing permits for curb-cuts and so forth. It’s a transportation-based agency. But the other thing it can do is mandate the construction of very expensive infrastructure, whole transit systems, and bill the local communities to pay for this, and if they don’t pay, deduct that from their state revenue-sharing. It’s a very powerful entity with both regulatory say about private projects and an ability to mandate public investment. It’s the result of a system that really was breaking down, couldn’t meet federal air pollution requirements, many symptoms of a system that just wasn’t working very well, and businesses saying it wasn’t working anymore. I don’t think you want to reach that point. Working on reasonable, balanced, rational systems of decision-making is a far better alternative to reaching a point where one has to create a very intrusive decision process in order to correct mistakes of the past. ”

We have, on the one hand, pressures for land conservation and resisting sprawl and a lot of people who hate to see an open field that used to be used for farming turned into a subdivision. And at the same time, we also recognize, especially in Massachusetts, that there is an affordable housing problem and that conservative economists tell us that part of what’s driving the price of housing up is a shortage of supply. And that sometimes the culprit, in the minds of some people, is too much emphasis on resisting development. How do you think about that tension?

“I think that housing is very expensive in Massachusetts and I think it is a problem.

“We are not land short in Massachusetts. The amount of land that is zoned for housing far exceeds the demand for housing lots.”

We are not really particularly land short in Massachusetts, I would say. Indeed the amount of land that is zoned for housing, which is the most common zoned category, far exceeds the potential demand for housing lots, for all time – I don’t know that for sure, but I would guess that’s the case. So I don’t think it’s the pure supply of land that is the difficulty. But there’s no question that some patterns of development are more expensive than others and will contribute to higher real housing costs. I think it’s important to see that in a big-picture context. Transportation costs would be thought of as well, and some patterns of development are conducive to much more efficient and less expensive transportation. People need to get around as well as find a place that they can afford to live. They need to be able to get to work. Planning and smart growth can be very consistent with reducing those costs.

Let me talk about density for a second. I think density has been something to be avoided in Massachusetts for many years. We’ve been reducing density, increasing lot sizes and so forth, to try to achieve environmental goals. But in many cases I think that’s been counter-productive. I think we need to encourage appropriate density, more intense development in appropriate locations with proper infrastructure. I think that will have the effect of reducing land costs, so it will contribute to reduction of housing prices. But I think it would also lead to more efficient patterns of development that would reduce the total cost of living for households.”

Does that just translate into “build more in the city”? Build more in Springfield and less in Acton?

“I don’t think so, necessarily. I think there’s probably room for more development in the cities in Massachusetts, many of which have lost population over time. The answer isn’t to make cities unlivably crowded and certainly nobody proposes that. The need for green space in cities needs to be recognized as an important priority, but I think there are opportunities for new development in cities. Boston certainly has tremendous potential for new housing development. So do most of the older cities in Massachusetts. But by the same token I don’t really think that the suburban towns benefit particularly from the middle-range zoning, several-acre-size lots. To protect countryside they’d have to be much larger, in a way that is not done in Massachusetts right now, or much smaller. Clustering development in compact forms is good for the countryside as well as for the city. The traditional pattern of development in New England has been the village form, which is a compact, relatively dense cluster. The really attractive images we have of historical Massachusetts is a small, densely developed village. I think planners are aware of the desirability of this form and are working to improve the approach, which zoning has very often countermanded. ”

Anyone who has been out to Cape Cod in the summertime is aware of what the Cape is becoming. You’re going to Brewster or Wellfleet or Orleans and you’re trying to get to the beach and you’re on Route 6. Route 6 is choking with cars, and it’s hot, and the people who live there hate it, and the people who are visiting think, “What is going on?” In your vision of a better Cape Cod, a place that works, can anything be done about that sort of overload, especially just in moving people around?

“The good-news part of that is that the desirability of Cape Cod has remained high. That’s a testament to the quality of Cape Cod. We still have five million visitors a year to the National Seashore. That’s a lot of visitors. That’s a popular place. It’s popular because it’s a distinctive experience for people who go, and they’re willing to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience to get there.

The road system has reached its limit. It is done. There really is only minor tweaking that can be done, but our ability to expand road capacity is virtually nonexistent on Cape Cod. So if people are going to get around more easily on the Cape and get to the Cape more easily, they’re going to have to do it without automobiles. I think we really have to find some other way to get around. And there are alternatives today which people increasingly use but we need to develop more. A simple enough alternative, especially for visitors in season, is to come by boat. There is a private venture right now, a fast boat from Boston to Provincetown that’s running, that I suspect will be successful. It’s a traditional way of getting around a place like Cape Cod. It always used to be easier to get around Cape Cod by boat than by car, and it’s once again true.

To have mobility around Cape Cod for those who have not brought automobiles requires using the bus system, which needs to be expanded, [and] using bicycles, which people increasingly do use. There are people who are using bikes as real transportation; it should be taken seriously. I think people in the resort business are going to become more sophisticated about providing transportation as part of the package. If you come to the Cape without a car and you stay at a hotel, the hotel ought to be able to help you get around. Having a small fleet of vans, perhaps shared by a number of properties; it’s been done in other resorts. It can be coordinated. It can be an efficient way to move around. I think it’s come to the point where having a car on Cape Cod is not a particular pleasure and it’s often not a terribly good way to get yourself where you want to be. So I think the alternatives start to look interesting.

Fixed rail doesn’t seem to be feasible in the short run for internal transportation on the Cape. I hate to rule anything out, but it seems to be an awfully expensive and difficult proposition.”

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
You wouldn’t agree yet with the curmudgeons who say the Cape is being ruined?

“It has always been possible to say that. It’s also been possible to point out things that have gotten better over time on Cape Cod. And some of these are trade-offs. I’ve never looked at it that way. For such a fragile place it’s been very forgiving. I would say that not only is it not ruined yet, but we’re beginning to see the potential for reclaiming areas that are less than what they should be. I think most of the development that takes place from now on should be redevelopment and reuse of existing structures. I think that will go a long way to accommodating the growth that will continue to come to Cape Cod in ways that will have a better environmental effect and be more profitable and more enjoyable to people. The potential is very high, and I think agencies like the Cape Cod Commission have started to recognize that they need to make it easier to do redevelopment than to cut down trees to build on greenfield sites, and they are doing that. I guess I’d have to say, having been in that position [leading the commission] for many years, I probably wouldn’t have got into it if I didn’t think there was a lot of potential for Cape Cod to continue to be a very desirable place and an intact place, and I think it’s well on the way. I thought [the Land Bank] was the key remaining tool that was needed. The regulatory tools were pretty much available for Cape Cod – there was a complement of techniques at hand to deal with growth and the environment – but what was needed was a very significant land acquisition fund. The Land Bank is that, and with all of these tools working together, the Cape is in a position to really plan its ultimate development and execute that plan in a way that respects property and brings people together more than apart around development concepts.”