CHATHAM – With the town surrounded by some 60-plus miles of shoreline and dotted with many freshwater ponds and inland wetlands, the conservation department is busy. The conservation commission meets weekly and last year held more than 300 hearings and project reviews. The workload is a reflection of both the push to develop more marginal properties and the understanding that protecting the environment is protecting Chatham.
“I think there's a challenge to balancing the pressure of development with protection of the environment, but I think Chatham does a good job at it,” said Caroline “Cally” Harper, the town's new conservation agent.
Harper, an Orleans resident, has been on the job just two weeks but brings to the position a familiarity with the environment of both the Cape in general and Chatham in particular. Most recently town planner in Truro, she previously worked as a coastal resilience specialist planner at the Cape Cod Commission. Between 2014 and 2017, she helped nine Cape towns, including Chatham, develop hazard mitigation plans.
That work gave her an understanding of Chatham's “really unique” shoreline, which ranges from barrier beaches to calm inlets and deep-water harbors. She also learned that both residents and visitors are very protective of the town.
“They're really invested in what happens,” Harper said.
Fourteen people applied for the position, according to Human Resources Director Jillian Douglass, and three of the top four candidates were interviewed. Harper's strong writing, communication and analytical skills, as well as her prior work on Cape coastal hazard and water issues, gave her the edge.
“We also felt her helpful and determined approach will prove beneficial to Chatham property owners, the town and our irreplaceable, high-quality natural resources,” Douglass said in an email.
Originally from Acton, Harper summered in Harwich Port while growing up. She attended Connecticut College in New London, received a master's degree in biology from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate in biology from Brown University, all the while maintaining her summer connection with the Cape.
“We always came back,” she said. “I never really cut my ties with the Cape.” In fact, she did her dissertation, on the ecology of bats – on the Cape.
It was the prospect of working more closely with the environment that brought her to Chatham.
“I'm really dedicated to protecting the environment,” she said, an important aspect of which is knowing the process and the myriad regulations, both state and local, that govern how we interact with the natural world. She also worked as a project manager for Wilkinson Ecologic Design, where she got involved in permitting, learned about working with coastal processes and saw projects through from start to finish.
“I'm excited to get into the trenches with the regulations,” she said, adding that she will also be spending time in the field, learning what's on the ground and how it relates to the regulations.
One of the challenges she sees in Chatham is learning the history of the projects that come before the commission. If a property comes before the commission, it's likely been there before, and all of this can bear on the determinations the group makes.
Harper's background spans many aspects of the environment. While at the University of North Carolina she was an outreach coordinator working with local and federal officials to rescue stranded marine mammals. She also worked as a research assistant at the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, conducting abundance surveys of right whales and providing technical assistance to the Canadian government on the relocation of shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy.
Harper will head the town's conservation division, reporting to Natural Resources Director Dr. Robert Duncanson.