Niedzwiecki: Cape's Economic, Ecological Health Linked, Both Vulnerable To Climate Change

By: Jan Sidebotham

Flooding during the Jan. 4 winter storm showed how vulnerable areas of the Cape are to sea level rise.

CHATHAM – For 27 years the Cape Cod Commission has been evaluating the economic and ecological health of the Cape. On Jan. 14, Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the commission, delivered a lecture at the community center about the ways that climate change is likely to affect the economic and ecological health on Cape Cod and what the commission is doing to protect it. The lecture, titled “The Price Tag: Economic Costs of Climate Change” was the fourth in a series of six lectures about climate change sponsored by Lower Cape Indivisible.

It would be easy to focus on the direness of the Cape’s situation. The peninsula juts out into an ocean that is warming; sea levels are rising; and one of its primary industries — tourism — depends on people wanting to come here because it is near the water, not under the water.

The threats to the Cape’s ecology are extreme weather, erosion, sea level rise, and flooding. Niedzwiecki did not sugarcoat the realities of global warming — or of development sprawl —  but at the same time, he was realistic about the avenues for preparation and foresight. He invoked “resiliency” as the key to responding successfully to global warming’s challenges. “Resilience Planning” involves identifying vulnerable assets; engaging and informing stakeholders; and inspiring people to share responsibility for action.

Early in his talk, Niedzswiecki, who recently announced that he was leaving the commission, gave an example of a vulnerable asset. There are 13,000 single-family homes on the Cape located in Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA). According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, homes in SFHA have a 26 percent chance of suffering flood damage over a 30-year period. Another way to understand SFHA is that these are areas where purchase of flood insurance is mandatory. These homes represent a value of $9 billion, which does not include the value they generate in terms of employing landscapers, plumbers, snow shovelers, and other workers on the Cape.

The culture of the Cape contributes in some part to its vulnerability, Niedzswiecki said. Most of the housing is single family, detached homes. That kind of housing encourages sprawl. Residential development on the Cape in the last 10 or so years has resulted in the loss of 2,300 acres of tree cover and has significantly increased the presence of pavement and impervious surfaces. The construction of multi-family units would be better not only for the natural environment but also for the economy. With property values soaring, many year-round residents have difficulty finding housing; many businesses have difficulty staffing — employees move elsewhere because they can’t find a place where they can afford to live.

One obstacle to the solution of higher density housing is a perception (not necessarily a reality) that such construction would be unattractive or attract the “wrong kind of people.” Between 2010 and 2015, after the country’s economic nose-dive, much year-round housing stock was lost. Constructing housing for middle class workers would restore lost housing, but the bogeyman of urban culture is powerful. The not-in-my-backyard attitude of many homeowners thwarts attempts to check sprawl and its attendant consequences.

Niedzswiecki voiced his conviction that all parties need a say in the future of the Cape. Any plan needs to take into account the economic impact on every constituency. The economic health of the Cape — based as it is on the environment — depends on the ecological health of the Cape. The ecological health of the Cape depends on solutions that won’t cause economic hardship or drive away economic investment.

While Niedzswiecki talked, graphics and talking points were projected on the screen. Similar images and much of the information he offered in the lecture can be found on the commission’s website, capecodcommission.org. There is a “quick links” menu on the lower left part of the home page. The black box link there leads to another menu of 10 icons. Among these is a “Chronology Viewer” which shows “125 years of growth and change” in the form of maps that date back to 1890. Another icon leads to a “Sea Level Rise Viewer,” which projects “critical infrastructure vulnerability.” An interactive tool allows the user to see how rising sea levels will affect particular areas. There is even a place to type in an address.

During the question and answer period, Niedzswiecki explained that the task of planning communities involves “bridging the gap between laissez-faire and the greater good.” Another task is to keep in mind simultaneously the two values of economy and ecology and to communicate to all Cape residents that such a balance is essential to their welfare.