The executive director of the Cape Cod Commission came to Mashpee this week, strongly defending the organization and questioning motives behind a Town Meeting petition article calling for the town to withdraw from the regional planning and regulatory authority.
On Monday evening, Paul J. Niedzwiecki addressed the Mashpee Board of Selectmen. Following a brief overview and update of the commission’s Section 208 Water Quality Plan, he wasted no time in taking the agency’s local detractors head-on.
Earlier this month, Mashpee selectman Thomas F. O’Hara filed a petition article in the town clerk’s office that, if approved at May Town Meeting, would direct the selectmen to place a question on the next election ballot, which would be in the spring of 2015. The question would read, “Shall the Town of Mashpee petition the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts asking that the Town of Mashpee be released from membership in and removed from the authority of the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Commission Act?”
Mr. Niedzwiecki acknowledged that there has been some anti-commission sentiment recently, following the agency’s decision not to allow a Lowe’s home improvement “big box” store to be built in Dennis.
Mr. Niedzwiecki acknowledged that there has been some anti-commission sentiment recently, following the agency’s decision not to allow a Lowe’s home improvement “big box” store to be built in Dennis. He also noted that there was a “resident of West Barnstable”—a thinly veiled reference to anti-commission activist Ron Beaty—who has been stirring up the commission withdrawal movement and has sent more than 700 disparaging e-mails about the agency in one year.
“There is concern about this petition movement because the comments are not based on facts but are driven by opinion,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said, adding that during his six-year tenure, the commission has only denied two out of 55 development of regional impact projects.
He then went on to site specific Mashpee facts and figures since the town joined the commission in 1990. “Over the course of 23 years, Mashpee has received $2.1 million in mitigation funds. Mashpee residents have gotten more than they have paid in,” he said, noting that the amount paid in to the commission, while more than $2.1 million, also includes the cost of professional technical assistance and expertise that it has provided to the town for more than two decades.
“When the commission started in 1990, Mashpee residents were paying $14 per household for commission membership, it is now $18 per household. During that time, Mashpee’s tax base has grown by 222 percent and the average tax bill by 150 percent. We do pretty good living within our means,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said.
Commission Staff Has Been Cut
He also disputed the perception that the commission had become a “regulatory behemoth,” saying that there are now fewer employees at the commission than when he took the helm six years ago, and that less than 10 percent of the staff are in regulatory positions.
Mr. Niedzwiecki was also visibly frustrated when he told the board that not one of the petitioners in the four towns—Mashpee, Sandwich, Chatham, and Dennis—that will have withdrawal presented to Town Meeting voters reached out to the commission to discuss concerns prior to filing the petitions. He also expressed concern that the commission, due to some Town Meeting rules, may not be able to defend itself in that type of venue.
He also referenced a letter the commission received from Theodore Tye, managing director of National Development, which plans on building a 54-unit assisted living facility, Bridges at Mashpee, at the corner of Old Barnstable Road and Route 151. It was the mitigation fees the commission levied on this project that provided the catalyst for Mr. O’Hara to sponsor the withdrawal petition. According to Mr. Niedzwiecki, Mr. Tye said that while he did not fully agree with the formula that dictated he set aside six units as affordable, he was unaware that he was “walking into a trap and that he was sorry that he got caught in the middle of somebody’s agenda.”
Following the conclusion of Mr. Niedzwiecki’s address, Mashpee Board of Selectmen Chairman John J. Cahalane made it clear that the petition was not in any way sponsored or endorsed by the town or the board.
Shortly thereafter, a direct and somewhat tense conversation between Mr. O’Hara and Mr. Niedzwiecki ensued for several minutes.
“I thought the mitigation was overboard and outrageous for the Bridges project. It prompted me to file the petition that day. We are fortunate that the developer decided to stay with the project,” Mr. O’Hara said.
At one point, Mr. Niedzwiecki said that he was surprised to see Mr. O’Hara’s name on the petition, since in 2008, while Mr. O’Hara was a member of the Mashpee Planning Board, he wanted additional mitigation assessed to a project.
“I only requested that so that the town could request its own mitigation from the developer,” Mr. O’Hara replied.
Residents to Support Cape Cod Commission
Ernest S. Virgilio, who has served as Mashpee’s representative to the commission for 14 years and was recently appointed for another three-year term, said that Mr. Niedzwiecki did a “great job” presenting facts to the board, and that there is already an effort underway to line up residents to speak in defense of the commission at the May 5 Town Meeting.
“It was a nice little performance. He justified the existence of the Cape Cod Commission, which I thought he would do,” Mr. O’Hara said earlier this week when asked about Mr. Niedzwiecki’s comments to the board of selectmen.
He said that he does not take issue with the technical assistance that the commission provided, but that his major issue is with mitigation fees, which he believes are assessed without a fee structure. “They have unlimited power to charge whatever they want to,” he said.
Mashpee Selectman Wants Out of Cape Cod Commission (February 2014)
Mr. O’Hara also argues that should Mashpee withdraw from the commission, it would not necessarily lose a lot of technical expertise, as the town can hire its own professional consultants and then charge the fees back to project applicants. He also expressed concern that the commission could be chasing business away from the Cape, subsequently leading to an increased exodus of young residents who cannot find employment here.
“I want to open up a dialogue. The Cape Cod Commission needs to know what towns want. We pay to be a member—they work for us and you would never know that. They should be communicating more with the towns, and perhaps should see what town leadership thinks before they impose mitigation fees. I’m only trying to protect Mashpee residents and make sure that their children can stay here. The commission has unchecked powers.
That’s not good. We are their employers,” Mr. O’Hara said.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Niedzwiecki said that he understands that the Cape Cod Commission is a controversial entity and easy target, but that he is disappointed that that the criticism is not directed toward the commission itself, but is rooted in a politics.
“That concerns me. We will be doing more outreach to let Cape residents know about all of the great and innovative work the commission is doing,” he said.