Saving Cape Cod

For years Betsy Warren has made it her business to know about every new home popping up in the town of Sandwich on the north shore of Cape Cod. That’s how the veteran real estate broker has made a living since the 1970s — helping to sell off little pieces of the curving Cape peninsula. So she seems happy to oblige when, one day in May, I ask her to show me some land.

We drive to one of the most desirable sites in town. Just next to the Round Hill Country Club is an area that years ago was plotted out to become Round Hill Estates, a massive subdivision that would accommodate 75 new houses, almost within putting distance of the golf course. As Warren turns her roomy Nissan Maxima onto the country club roadway, I wonder if she has calculated the commissions she could earn on all the potential home sales.

But Warren isn’t thinking about commissions. As it turns out, there will be no Round Hill Estates here. The town of Sandwich is heading off the construction by buying this property — almost 500 acres, including the golf course — and preserving it as open space. And Warren says she was elated, not disappointed, when she heard the news.

“I thought, my God, this is really wonderful!” Warren recalls, as she winds along Round Hill Road, on the periphery of the golf course. Towering over the pavement are hundreds of oak trees topped with bright yellow leaves that glow golden in the mid-afternoon sun. A few connecting streets are laid out for the would-be subdivision, but otherwise all we can see is acres and acres of oaks and scrubby pine.

“You certainly would be in favor of this–I mean, how could you not be?” says Warren.

“I always hesitate when I see [a building project] that looms big on the horizon,” Warren says — not at all what I expect from a former president of the Cape Cod & Islands Board of Realtors. “By preserving the land…you’re protecting the quality of the life around you,” she adds. “If you have a sense of pride in the place where you live and work, you certainly would be all in favor of this. I mean, how could you not be?”

The town’s ability to purchase the $11 million parcel — the largest tract of undeveloped land left in Sandwich and a potential spot for a new well to supplement its strained drinking-water supply — is thanks in no small part to Warren and other Cape Codders like her. The deal is being made possible with revenue from the new Cape Cod Land Bank — the culmination of a 15-year struggle to limit development and protect the Cape’s green spaces — for which Warren helped win approval in a difficult ballot-box battle last year. Funded by a new 3 percent surcharge on property tax bills, the Land Bank is expected to raise about $9 million a year, to be divided among the Cape’s 15 towns.

Warren’s involvement in the campaign turned into an obsession that will fill three or four bulging scrapbooks by the time she finishes filing all the newspaper clippings, photographs, and other memorabilia. The 58-year-old grandmother put her business virtually on hold and rarely saw her husband for weeks on end. Half a year later, she still sports a “Cape Cod’s Worth It! Vote Yes on the Land Bank!” bumper sticker on her car. But despite her intense commitment to the cause, few believed her sincerity at first — especially the Cape’s environmental activists. After all, they had just seen Warren spend months rallying voters to defeat an earlier land bank proposal the conservationists had championed for years.

Susan Nickerson was among the skeptics. Nickerson is an 11th-generation Cape Codder. Her father’s family came to Chatham in 1639; her mother’s ancestors were the latecomers, arriving in Orleans later that century. Though she grew up north of Boston, in Reading, while her father taught environmental science and botany at Tufts University, Nickerson always summered on the Cape at the rambling “family homestead” in Dennis. “We were one of those Cape Cod families that had a lot of land and no money,” Nickerson says, laughing.

Today most of that land — several dozen acres on the Bass River — is in the hands of conservation groups. And Nickerson, 42, is the executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, the region’s leading environmental organization. With long, dirty-blonde hair, little makeup, and an earth-toned paisley skirt, Nickerson looks the part of grass-roots activist as she leads me on a brief tour of Barnstable spots being considered for land-bank protection. And the impression is only reinforced as she explains the benefits of preventing the development of 25 waterfront condos at the Barnstable Harbor Marina and more than a dozen houses near a potential future water source for West Barnstable.

The story of how Susan Nickerson and Betsy Warren came to fight for the same side in an environmental battle that bitterly divided the Cape says something significant about the critical choices facing the ocean-front region. But it also resonates beyond the popular vacation spot, speaking to development pressures facing bulging suburbs and rural areas across Massachusetts. As more communities confront the sprawl that threatens to turn forests and fields into subdivisions and strip malls, they must find a way to balance development and environmental interests to satisfy both. Many have asked the Legislature for the authority to set up their own land banks — and they may win that approval this year. But they will still need to convince local voters it’s the right thing to do, perhaps forging the same kinds of unlikely alliances that Betsy Warren and Susan Nickerson did on Cape Cod.

Is taxpayer-supported land preservation an idea whose time has come? Cape Cod represents the state’s biggest experiment yet. But it’s an idea that got its start 25 miles off the Cape’s southern shore — on the island of Nantucket.

There once was a man from Nantucket…

William Klein found his community under siege in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Nantucket, the posh island getaway of the rich and famous, was being subdivided at the alarming rate of 500 lots a year, with 100 to 200 houses being built. Some 342 real estate brokers made the island their home. But perhaps most shocking was that the public owned only one mile of the island’s 80 miles of shore front. A local private, nonprofit land trust called the Nantucket Conservation Foundation was able to snatch up some of the most critical areas on the public’s behalf, but the group simply could not afford to buy everything in danger.

“So there we were watching the community kind of slip away from us,” recalls Klein, who witnessed the ominous developments from his perch as the town’s first planning director. “People were beginning to worry that its shorelands and moorlands were going to be covered with suburban sprawl.” The town had pages and pages of building restrictions — zoning bylaws, subdivision regulations, the historic district commission’s architectural rules — but they clearly were not doing the job. The problem, Klein says, was that all were limited by the “just compensation” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cities and towns from enacting overly aggressive land-use restrictions without paying property owners for their anticipated financial losses.

Eventually Klein realized that being serious about land preservation meant the town would have to start buying land itself — in effect compensating people for not developing. He remembers looking at a map and determining it would take about $100 million to save what was vulnerable — an amount the town of 6,000 year-round residents obviously did not have.

So Klein took two established ideas and joined them in a brand-new system to protect the island. From Pennsylvania, where he had worked as a planning consultant, he borrowed the concept of a tax on real estate sales, known as a real estate transfer tax. Pennsylvania townships had used transfer taxes to generate revenue for general operating expenses; Klein figured they might as well be used to buy land. Then he looked at the traditional notion of land-banking — buying land while it’s affordable and saving it, or “banking it,” for future use — and adapted it to the needs of Nantucket. Rather than holding property so the town could build, for example, a sewer plant years down the road, the town could ban development there and preserve it as open space. Klein remembers the brainstorm that led to the nation’s first land bank as “the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup” solution: “It was…putting the two ingredients together. Instead of chocolate and peanut butter, this was a real estate transfer tax and land-banking.”

Klein filled in the details and shopped the proposal around to all the people he thought would be likely to line up for or against it — preservationists, realtors, home builders. The discussion lasted two years, resulting in 20 public hearings, hundreds of phone calls, and a 28-page booklet called “Goals and Objectives for Balanced Growth.” Just one page was dedicated to the land bank proposal; the rest addressed affordable housing, economic development, transportation, environmental quality, utilities, and infrastructure. “We were trying to convince the building and real estate community that…we were a balanced group, not just a bunch of no-growth preservationists,” Klein says.

The leg work paid off. By the time the land bank proposal came up for a town meeting vote in April 1983, any opposition had vanished. The vote was 446 to 1.

The measure still needed legislative approval and the governor’s O.K. But despite the radical nature of the request — if it succeeded, it would be the first time a Massachusetts municipality had been given a new taxing authority since the creation of property taxes and auto excise taxes — Klein wasn’t worried. The wisdom was evident, he says. The plan allowed the town to tie the solution directly to the problem — the highly speculative real estate market that was consuming precious open space would create the source of funding for its protection. “The more speculation and land purchasing there was, the more money [would be] made by the land bank,” Klein says.

And if the intellectual approach didn’t work, the emotional one surely would. Then-Gov. Michael Dukakis had honeymooned on Nantucket, so he already had “warm and fuzzy feelings” about the island, Klein says. And the legislators? For them, islanders painted a disturbing picture of residents of other states buying up Nantucket land: “If the Legislature didn’t give us this special power, we’d come back in 20 years and see all of our beaches privately restricted, and Massachusetts residents would be huddled on that one mile of [public] shore front while out-of-staters were sipping their martinis on the other 79 miles. That was a very bad image, especially during the baseball season, when the Red Sox and the Yankees were at it.”

The land bank, funded by a 2 percent transfer tax paid by the buyer, was operational by February 1984. Some $1.6 million was raised in year one. Last year, revenues rose to a record high of almost $8 million, says Eric Savetsky, the current director. And the grand total so far? About $57 million by early May. An elected commission with absolute authority decides how to spend the money. The town now owns 1,900 acres, or about six to seven percent of the island, Savetsky says.

Today Klein, who was Nantucket’s planning director for 17 years until 1991, is director of research for the American Planning Association in Chicago. But he still summers on Nantucket. The bad news, he says, is that despite the land bank’s success, the island continues to develop rapidly, with a lot of “trophy houses” going up on coveted parcels with beautiful views. But there is good news, he adds: About 38 percent of the island has been preserved so far, between the land bank and private groups, and there is an excellent chance of eventually preserving half.

A Matter of Timing

The irony is that even as Nantucket paved the way for communities across the country to establish similar measures, its legislative strategy made it difficult for nearby Cape Cod to follow. Neighboring Martha’s Vineyard got its own land bank two years later, but legislators were reluctant to let the idea spread beyond the islands, according to then- state Sen. Paul Doane, a Republican from the Cape, who filed both island bills. Some envisioned a red menace of sorts, “like the invasion of the fire ants,” blanketing the state with new taxes, Doane recalls. “People were saying the islands are O.K., but when you start getting on the mainland…. What’s going to keep it from going statewide?”

Development and real estate interests definitely wanted to prevent that, says Doane, now a New York investment banker who commutes from his Harwich home each week. As a result, Doane took great pains to sell the land bank proposal as a unique solution to the islands’ unique problems. There was an “understanding” with the real estate lobby that the islands were a special case, he says, because of their geographic segregation and their significance as natural resources and national vacation destinations.

But of course, the problems were not confined to the islands; the Cape faced the same issues — on an even larger scale. With the region’s population almost doubling to 187,000 between 1970 and 1990, residential development was getting out of control. By the mid-1980s, about 5,000 new housing units were going up each year. The growth was hurting not just the look of the Cape, but something even more vital — the water supply. All of the Cape’s drinking water comes from the ground. As more buildings went up, more pollutants seeped into the aquifer, and fears mounted that soon there would not be enough safe water to go around.

By 1987, Sen. Doane says, he could not ignore the pressure to bring a land bank to Cape Cod. So he and the rest of the Cape’s legislative delegation filed a bill identical to the proposal he used for the islands — a 2 percent tax on real estate sales. But the bill died in the House, on a 70 to 76 vote. “There were just too many complications…too many questions being asked,” Doane says, noting that the Cape’s 15 towns and county government made the plan more complex than it was on either Nantucket or the Vineyard.

Other legislators carried on Doane’s crusade after he left the Legislature in 1988, but fared no better. Tom Cahir, then a Democratic representative from Bourne who filed a 1989 bill, says the timing was all wrong. “In those days, the no-new-tax sentiment was very strong around the state. The economy was starting to fail, and we raised the income tax and the sales tax and various other taxes…,” Cahir recalls. “Then it really got bad, at the end of the Dukakis years, and no one was going to be talking about a land bank…. It was just a terrible, terrible time.”

Politics 101

“It showed me how hard you have to work to save things,” Nickerson says of her first political lesson.

Susan Nickerson was a high school student when she learned her first political lesson — one that would serve her well years later in her roller-coaster ride to create a land bank for Cape Cod. She was working with other Reading residents to save an old farm from imminent development, and helped organize a campaign to persuade town meeting to buy the land. Unfortunately they failed, she says, in part due to apathy and in part due to the influence of the local political machine that preferred to see the spot developed. But rather than discourage her, the experience energized her. “It showed me how hard you have to work to save things and what kinds of attitudes and pressures are out there working the other way,” she recalls. “It helped me understand why it wasn’t simple to just bring a pretty picture to town meeting and have people say, ‘Yeah, let’s save that.’ There was much, much more to it.”

“It was purely political.. They couldn’t give too much to one region.”

Nickerson got her introduction to the peculiar politics of the land bank issue soon after joining the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod in 1988. Legislators told her and other environmentalists they were going to have to choose their battles. They could either push for a land bank to acquire open space or for the Cape Cod Commission, a proposal for an unprecedented regional planning agency to regulate growth — but not both. The two bills were competing for support, the legislators explained; it had to be one or the other. “It was purely political,” Nickerson recalls, with more than a hint of resentment. “They couldn’t give too much to one region.”

Today Nickerson says she does not regret choosing the Cape Cod Commission. The agency, which was created in 1990, has made tremendous strides in controlling what used to be virtually unchecked growth on the Cape. But still, she adds, “It was very hard to predict that land would disappear at the rate it has been disappearing…. I don’t feel we made a mistake, but I feel it would have been better for the Cape to have both a long time ago.”

When the state’s real estate interests lost the fight over the Cape Cod Commission, and watched a new, countywide property tax go into effect to pay for its work, they vowed to keep the land bank legislation in the political graveyard. They didn’t need to exert much effort. With the onset of the recession in the early 1990s, it was going nowhere anyway. Nickerson and company turned their attention away from the State House and back to the grass roots. Between groundwater contamination at the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Bourne and a proposed wastewater discharge pipe for the Boston Harbor cleanup in Cape Cod Bay, they had plenty to keep them busy until the political climate changed.

Giving It Another Go

Betsy Warren fell in love with the Cape while honeymooning on the beach in Dennisport in 1959, the same year singer Patti Page hit it big with “Falling in Love With Old Cape Cod.” So when her husband was offered a job teaching physical education at Barnstable High School a few years later, she jumped at the chance to become a permanent resident. Soon the Warrens started a weekend ritual with their two young daughters: They loaded up their jeep and drove to Sandy Neck, an enormous expanse of beach off Route 6A in Barnstable, where they grilled hamburgers on a hibachi and spent hours lounging by the bonfires with other families.

Warren first heard of the idea of a land bank more than three decades later, in the spring of 1996 during a realtors’ lobbying day on Beacon Hill. Then president of the Cape Cod & Islands Multiple Listing Service, Warren learned from Rep. Tom Cahir that a land bank proposal was in the works and that he supported it. She knew an economic argument could be made for the concept, in addition to the environmental one she felt in her gut: By protecting open space, you increase the value of the homes that already exist. But she shuddered at the funding mechanism Cahir mentioned — the real estate transfer tax. Warren and her colleagues felt it was fundamentally unfair to require only those who are buying or selling property to pay a special tax for something that would benefit everyone on the Cape. “Our reaction was there must be a better way,” Warren says.

State Rep. Eric Turkington, a Democrat from Falmouth who filed the 1996 land bank legislation, thought the timing would be right that year. The economy had recovered, building was picking up, and the Cape’s green spaces were again starting to disappear at a rapid rate. A legislator since the land bank battles of the late 1980s, Turkington saw the failure of the 2 percent transfer tax and decided to try a new tack. He proposed a smaller fee — a 1 percent transfer tax, levied only on the portion of sales over $100,000 — hoping it would be more palatable to his fellow politicians. But he didn’t count on the influence of the realtors.

“We were very disappointed. . .we felt it was going to be a tremendous fight.”

After meeting with Cahir at the State House, the Cape Cod & Islands Board of Realtors formed a committee to fight the land bank and named Warren a member. First they offered an alternative plan, devised by James Trainor, a broker from Orleans. Trainor proposed a 3 percent property tax surcharge — a fee that would increase every property tax bill by 3 percent. The committee brought the idea to Rep. Turkington, Nickerson and other land bank supporters, but they were not interested. Any plan would need to be approved by voters in a Cape-wide referendum, and they just could not see Cape residents voting to tax themselves. “We were very disappointed,” Warren says, looking back, “because we felt it was going to be a tremendous fight.” She was right.

The first round went to land bank supporters. In a non-binding ballot question in November 1996, Cape voters endorsed Turkington’s proposal of a land bank funded by a 1 percent transfer tax by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. But that was only the beginning. There would be two more elections to go.

Round Two

Bolstered by the referendum results, Turkington took the land bank bill back to Beacon Hill in early 1997. Momentum seemed to be growing. Environmental groups made it a priority. Powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who has a summer home in Eastham, was all for it. And residents of sprawling communities across the state who were interested in starting their own land banks were watching the maneuvering, hoping they could read a favorable message into the outcome. Busloads of Cape residents made the 60-plus-mile trek to the State House to lobby legislators. In the spring, they visited every representative’s and senator’s office to give them each a deed to one square-inch of Cape Cod.

But the real estate lobby, long opponents to any kind of a real estate transfer tax, came on strong. It didn’t hurt that Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci took the opportunity of his first week in office in August to denounce the bill as “elitist” and “exclusionary.” Cellucci, who said the tax would prevent first-time home buyers and retirees from buying “the house of their dreams,” vowed to veto the bill if it reached his desk. How Turkington missed former Gov. Bill Weld, who had just left office for his failed bid to become U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Weld, who often quipped, “You can’t be too green on Cape Cod,” indicated he’d let the bill slide as long as voters approved it. There were at least seven House and Senate votes on the land bank in the summer and fall of 1997. And in the end, the Legislature succeeded in overriding Cellucci’s November veto — his first as governor. Back to the voters the proposal went — this time in a binding referendum that would make or break the plan.

The date chosen for the special election — Jan. 27 –was coming up quickly, but Turkington was optimistic. “We thought we were on this great roll and the sooner the better,” he recalls. “We assumed everyone was as on-board as we were.”

But there was a problem. The proposal was no longer the same plan put to the voters the year before. During the legislative wrangling to get a land bank bill approved, Turkington and other supporters had to agree to several revisions. They included a one-word change that Turkington said at the time was “not a deal breaker,” but in retrospect he calls the “poison-pill amendment.” On Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, as well as across the country, the person buying property pays the transfer tax. But in order to appease realtors and key legislators, the responsibility for paying the tax was put on the seller. Turkington agreed, hoping that voters would understand that no matter who was specified in the legislation, the fee could be negotiated as part of the sale price.

The campaign was short, but intense. With the holidays in the way, the real work didn’t get started until early January 1998. On one side was the coalition of land bank supporters — led by Susan Nickerson — who had been working on the issue since the 1980s. It included all but one member of the Cape legislative delegation, prominent environmental groups, and hundreds of Cape residents who volunteered to help out. On the other side was the Cape & Islands Board of Realtors — whose efforts were coordinated by Betsy Warren — with backing from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. And they had a secret weapon, or at least, a hired gun — political consultant Paul Shone, who had worked for U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas and U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley, among others, and had just helped orchestrate defeat of a similar land bank proposal in Haverhill, on the New Hampshire border.

Sue Rohrbach, whom Nickerson hired to staff the Friends of the Cape Cod Land Bank, says it got ugly. Dueling ads ran in the Cape Cod Times and the weekly papers, and there were regular letters to the editor. Land bank supporters concentrated on the vulnerability of the water supply. A photo of a little girl drinking a glass of water accompanied slogans like “Protect our Drinking Water and Preserve the Cape we Love.” Their fliers said, “It’s the Cape’s Last, Best Chance: The Cape Cod Land Bank.” On Shone’s advice, the realtors stressed that they were not against the idea of a land bank; they just didn’t like the funding mechanism. Their slogan was “No Sales Tax on Homeowners. Vote No on the Land Tax.” They also printed fliers with the message, “There’s a Better Way: Vote This Land Tax Down and Tell the Politicians to Come Up With Something That Works For All of Us.”

The environmentalists appealed to local celebrities, getting marathoner Johnny Kelly who lives in Dennis, actor Julie Harris who lives in Chatham, and former Congressman Gerry Studds to help make their case. The realtors hit it big with two senior citizens, Irving and Jean Gardner, well-known retirees from Yarmouthport who had grown up on Cape Cod and helped counter the contention that all of the opponents were real estate interests from off-Cape.

Each side accused the other of spreading misinformation. The environmentalists accused opponents of making misleading statements through an out-of-state telemarketing company that called thousands of residents in the two weeks before the election. The realtors accused the environmentalists of blowing things out of proportion and accused the newspapers of biased coverage favoring the environmentalists. Both groups held regular press conferences, and Nickerson, Warren, and others debated at dozens of public forums held to explain the proposal.

Rohrbach still sounds bitter when she describes the scene today. “There was really a lot of anger towards the other side…. They had telemarketers doing telephoning; they were like totally computerized and we were grass-roots people looking up the phone numbers,” she says. “They had people from Olympia, Washington calling, who knew absolutely nothing about the issue, and yet were making statements to people that we felt were false and misleading.” Then she adds, “They were running a different kind of campaign, and they were good.” By the end of the campaign, the realtors had spent almost $176,000 — about $50,000 more than the environmentalists.

“We thought they were good lines and when the election was over they’d pat themselves on the back and go back to selling real estate.”

Perhaps most aggravating was the realtors’ strategy of telling people they supported the idea of a land bank — just not this one. (“Oh God, do I still hate to hear that,” Rohrbach groans.) If this proposal failed, they pledged, they would come back with a different plan and work hard to get it passed. “Frankly, we did not believe them,” Turkington says. “We thought they were good lines and when the election was over they’d pat themselves on the back and go back to selling real estate.” Nickerson adds: “It sounded good, but in actuality we wondered why they would bother coming back.”

“Mom, are you going to promise me you’re coming back?”

Even Warren’s daughter Susan wondered. When they spoke the day of the election, Warren reminded her not to forget to “vote against the transfer tax.” Susan responded with a pointed question: “Mom, are you going to promise me you’re coming back?” Warren replied firmly, “I’m coming back! I promise you and those three grandchildren I’m coming back.”

A couple weeks before the election, polls on both sides showed that the land bank supporters were ahead by 40 percentage points. They scheduled a victory party. About 150 people showed up at the Dolphin restaurant in Barnstable Village to celebrate on election night. But when the results started to come in, it didn’t look good. And it only got worse. The land bank lost by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent — the exact opposite of the win in the non-binding referendum 14 months earlier.

“We were pretty shocked,” Nickerson recalls. Congressman Bill Delahunt tried to rally the troops with a pep talk. Exhausted, Nickerson went home and went to sleep. Meanwhile, Warren and a dozen others had gathered at the Yarmouth office of the Cape & Islands Board of Realtors. Huge deli platters were still covered with plastic wrap when a newspaper photographer snapped a picture of elated campaign workers cheering the outcome.

‘I remember you. I hated your guts.’

The next day, a Barnstable man phoned into WXTK Radio and called Warren — she’ll never forget the phrase — “a bald-faced liar.” Warren did not hear the comment herself, but so many people told her about it afterwards it became burned into her brain. “He said, ‘Here it is the day after the election and where’s Betsy Warren?’ ” she recalls. The man wanted to know why she hadn’t yet proposed an alternative method of funding a land bank. Apparently he thought Warren herself would be back within 24 hours of the election with all the details worked out. Of course, what she meant was that the anti-transfer-tax coalition would offer a new proposal as soon after the vote as possible.

As it turned out, it didn’t take too long for the realtors and company to reappear. On Friday, just three days after the election, the lone Cape legislator who sided with the realtors, Republican Rep. Tom George of Yarmouth, held a press conference to announce his own proposal. The idea was a property tax surcharge of $20, $40, or $80 a year, depending on the property’s value. He came up with the idea by calculating the amount of money that would have been generated Cape-wide by a 1 percent transfer tax and devising a new formula that would raise the same amount through a property tax surcharge. The proposed fee was about one-quarter of 1 percent of a property’s value.

It sounded complicated, and it was. But George, who had been angry that the original land bank proposal was made without public input, was determined to hear from the people who’d be paying. So he launched a series of eight meetings in towns across the Cape to discuss funding options. He walked away with at least 20 suggestions, some pretty preposterous. They ranged from a poll tax, to a toll at the bridges over the Cape Cod Canal, to a new seasonal sales tax that would be in place only from April to September with exemption cards for year-round residents.

Meanwhile, Richard Batchelder, one of the few Cape real estate agents working with the environmentalists, was made chairman of a group of realtors trying to come up with an approach that would be agreeable to everyone. In several meetings through the winter, they floated three basic principles they hoped all could endorse: 1) The land bank would be funded by a 3 percent property tax surcharge — the same proposal that realtor Jim Trainor made back in 1996; 2) Each town could decide for itself whether to join the land bank; unlike the previous proposal, the measure would not need county-wide approval to go into effect; and 3) The Cape would seek matching funds from the state. The winter of 1998 soon would be turning into spring, and U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt was getting nervous. A strong advocate of a land bank, the former Norfolk County district attorney who replaced longtime and well-loved Cape Congressman Gerry Studds wanted to make sure something positive would come out of the pain of the referendum’s defeat. Hoping to help forge a consensus, Delahunt invited all the key players to the tony Chatham Bars Inn on Chatham Harbor.

“Not everybody was gung-ho about this, I have to say,” Sue Rohrbach recalls of the March 14 meeting with environmentalists, legislators, and realtors all sitting at the same table. But by the end of the 1½-hour session, they had reached agreement. Rep. George’s plan for a graduated property tax surcharge was shelved. “People thought that was too complex…because of, pardon the expression, the little old ladies,” George says now.

In the end, the group agreed that the best funding proposal was the 3 percent property tax surcharge the realtors had been pushing all along. It would amount to about $50 a year for the average Cape property owner, as opposed to the couple thousand dollars that those paying a transfer tax would have to shell out. The group also agreed to a “sunset provision” that would close the land bank in 20 years.

The environmentalists took a collective deep breath and geared up for another go — this time with the realtors in a new organization called People United for a Cape Cod Land Bank. Nickerson and realtor Jim Trainor were the co-chairs; Warren again was in charge of coordinating the realtors. But it wasn’t easy at first to unite with those who were considered the enemy just weeks earlier. Nickerson says she doesn’t remember any animosity. But Rohrbach says it was a “strange, strange thing” to stand with Warren and other realtors at the press conference to announce the new funding plan. Some of the volunteers from the previous campaign later asked Rohrbach, “How could you get up there with those people?” And at her first meeting at the new campaign headquarters, Warren recalls a man she did not know greeting her with, “I remember you. I hated your guts last year!”

But within a few weeks, most were willing to work together. The fact that the realtors had kept their promise went a long way toward soothing frayed nerves and healing bruised egos. By the fall, once the Legislature had approved the new plan and sent it to the voters for a third referendum, the campaign was even venturing into some corny symbolism. In January, the pro-land-bank lawn signs were blue and the anti-land-bank signs were red. This time, Paul Shone — who had been hired again, to run the campaign for the land bank — decided to make signs in each color, with the slogan, “A Land Bank We Can All Support.” “It was beautiful,” he says now. “It really was beautiful.”

The lack of any organized opposition made their progress difficult to gauge. But Nickerson, Warren, and many others spent that fall working 12-hour days doing all the same kinds of things they had done before — distributing fact sheets, organizing volunteers, and talking to community groups about the need for a land bank. They used the same telemarketing firm the realtors had used. They even convinced Irv and Jean Gardner, the Yarmouthport retirees, to do a commercial — this time, of course, for the proposal.

On Nov. 3, Nickerson, Warren, and the rest of the gang gathered at campaign headquarters to listen to the election results on the radio. Shone told them the pre-vote polling looked promising: They had a chance to win in every single town. As the news filtered in, someone stuck a big green star by the name of each town voting Yes on a list on the wall. By the end of the night, there were 15 green stars — one for each Cape community. The final vote was 58 percent in favor of the land bank to 42 percent against, the biggest margin yet. “And when we won the whole thing, it was just like incredible,” Rohrbach recalls. “It was very, very exciting. Everyone screamed and danced and hugged and drank champagne…. I think it was 3 o’clock in the morning when we got home.”

In retrospect, many of those involved in the land bank crusade agree the new proposal probably would have failed, too, were it not for the previous two campaigns to educate people about the need. Rep. Turkington says the experience shows that the legislative process, despite its messy appearance, does work well. “It’s easy to be cynical about legislatures and how they work, but our experience was we got a lot better bill in the end as a result of the process,” he says. “It took everyone’s view into consideration. It recognized the realities of political life and what the voters will stand for…. That’s what we’re here to find out.”

Open For Business

The Cape Cod Land Bank opened for business July 1, though residents won’t see their first property tax bills with the 3 percent surcharge until the fall. The 15 local land bank funds will continue to collect revenue until Jan. 1, 2020. Each town will keep the money it raises, ranging from an estimated $1.7 million a year in the Cape’s biggest town of Barnstable to $137,000 in the smallest town of Truro, based on fiscal 1998 receipts. Each community also will receive a state grant for its land bank each year — in an amount equal to half the total raised from its property tax surcharge — until the $15 million available in state funds runs out.

Several communities won’t be collecting enough to do much right away, even with the state matching funds, so they are being encouraged to borrow against the anticipated revenue and use the proceeds to snatch up important parcels. Wellfleet, for example, which is expected to raise just about $200,000 from the property tax surcharge could buy land worth an estimated $2.4 million by borrowing. And Sandwich, the town planning to buy the 471-acre tract that includes the Round Hill Country Club, is borrowing to pay for about half the land. (It is buying the golf course and using anticipated revenue from the course to fund the rest of the purchase.)

Decisions about what to buy are being made by each community’s town meeting (and in the case of Barnstable, the town council). But they are to be guided by recommendations from the local open space committee, appointed by the selectmen (and, in Barnstable, by the town council). The money can be used for land to protect water supplies, agricultural land, forest land, wetlands, coastal land, pond frontage, scenic vistas, natural or wildlife preserves, trails, and recreational areas. Once purchased, the land — bound by a permanent deed restriction against development — can be managed by the town or a nonprofit organization on the town’s behalf. In cases where a future water supply is at stake, management can devolve to a local water or fire district.

Lessons From the Cape

Betsy Warren pages through a photo album in her office at Eagle Associates Real Estate, pointing out pictures of some of the many key players in the land bank saga. “There’s Eric Turkington…there’s Sue Rohrbach…there’s Susan Nickerson with her baby….” Her business partner keeps asking her what she’s going to do with all the boxes of land bank paraphernalia, more than half a year after the victory vote. But Warren likes having it around. “I tried to save everything. I felt there was going to be a tremendous sense of history,” she says. And she’s still staying up until 11 o’clock at night slipping newspaper clippings and other memorabilia into the plastic sleeves of her scrapbooks.

Now that the win is safe behind her, Warren admits there were times that she had serious doubts about whether they could pull off a land bank victory the second time around. She peppered herself with questions as she drove from her home in Barnstable to her office in Sandwich, winding through miles and miles of beautiful scenery. “I used to drive down [Route] 6A and say to myself, ‘Am I really doing the right thing? What if we can’t get this thing passed another time? Aren’t you going to feel really badly?” Today Warren puts a positive spin on those moments, saying they just strengthened her resolve to work harder.

Susan Nickerson is rushing between meetings but carves out an hour to drive around Barnstable showing a few sites the town is considering for purchase. As elated as she was to see the land bank finally approved, she reveals a bittersweet sentiment during the ride. “It’s not the be-all and end-all to saving the Cape,” Nickerson says about the Land Bank with an audible sigh. “The biggest thing that goes through my mind is there’s not enough money. There is not enough money in the Land Bank to make the dent that needs to be made.”

Meet the Author
She explains that so much of the Cape has already been developed, it’s really too late to make a difference in a lot of cases. There is still about a third of the Cape — about 80,000 acres — up for grabs, but it’s fragmented, cut up into small pieces scattered all over. “It’s important to realize it’s not going to be like it used to be [with] huge tracts of virgin land,” she says. “Really what we’re doing now is trying to save the best of what’s left out there in terms of water supply protection, scenic character, quality of life, and habitat.” Nickerson estimates that Cape towns will be able to protect 5,000 to 7,000 additional acres thanks to the Land Bank by the time it closes in 20 years. It’s critical work; she does not want to minimize it. But the facts are the facts. It’s not ideal.

One of the most important things to come out of the Cape saga, she says, is a lesson for other parts of the state. If they succeed in setting up their own land banks soon, they may be able to save the kind of large tracts that so tempt developers. But if it’s going to take them the same 15 years to win approval, they better get going now.