What Can Cape Cod Teach Door County?

DCEC starts that conversation

Door County is often referred to as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” due to shared characteristics. Both the Cape in Barnstable County and Door County are the eastern-most land masses in their respective states. Each is about 20 miles across at the widest point and extends into large bodies of water, the Cape hooking about 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, the Door peninsula about 70 miles into Lake Michigan. 

In addition to their geographic similarities, they’re both tourist destinations with large service industries. Both have wealth and poverty existing side by side, with the median household incomes – $76,863 on the Cape, $61,765 in the Door – not making enough to afford median-priced homes: $690,000 in Barnstable County and $403,500, in Door County, according to the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors and the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

The differences between the two are a matter of scale. The direct visitor spending impact in Door County was calculated as $423 million in 2021, versus $1.37 billion in the Cape’s Barnstable County for the same year. And there are a lot more year-round residents on the Cape. European settlers inhabited that region about 200 years before settlement in Door County – the early 1600s versus the mid-1850s, respectively. 

Today, the Cape has a population of 228,926, versus Door County’s 30,066, according to census figures for 2020. Door County’s land area is also slightly larger than the Cape’s: 483 square miles versus 394 square miles, respectively. That means there are 581 people crammed into every square mile on the Cape, versus Door County’s 62 people per square mile.

Longtime branding has dubbed Door County the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” for the two locations’ geographic similarities. 

Keeping a Special Place Special: The Cape Cod Commission

If Door County is a less-populated version of the Cape, perhaps the peninsula can learn something from its more thickly settled, East Coast twin, according to the nonprofit Door County Environmental Council (DCEC). 

That’s the conversation the DCEC wants to have, said Steve Eatough, DCEC president, to discover what can be learned from how other communities such as the Cape are working together to solve shared issues of concern.

“They’ve seen a lot of the same problems, but they’re ahead of us in dealing with this,” Eatough said.

Some of those problems include water quality degradation, overtourism – which Eatough defined as “too many tourists at the same time at the same place” – or the building and development pressures that can diminish the quality of life for both residents and tourists alike.

“We’re seeing significant commercial projects in some of our towns and villages that are too big proportionally with the towns they’re in and provide too much density,” he said. 

Eatough was speaking to an in-person audience that had turned out at Egg Harbor’s Kress Pavilion this fall for a virtual presentation by guest speaker Erin Perry, deputy director of the Cape Cod Commission (CCC).  

The CCC is an agency of Barnstable County government, but it has a separate funding source in the Cape Cod Environmental Protection Fund. Perry said that its annual budget of between $5-$6 million – its 2023 budget is about $5.9 million – is half funded with grants. 

The CCC has a 19-member board that’s seated with a representative from each of Cape Cod’s 15 towns. The Barnstable County commissioners also appoint one of its commissioners, a minority representative and a Native American representative. The governor’s office appoints the remaining Cape Cod Commission members.

Perry said the CCC was created in response to unprecedented growth that began in the 1950s: suburban-style homes and businesses and a “tidal wave of retirees after that. Towns were limited to manage that demand and growth, and there was no regional plan.”

As development pressures intensified, “it stressed our environment and infrastructure,” Perry said. At one point, there was a proposal for a moratorium on development across the entire region.

“Things couldn’t continue as they had been, but it was also clear that a moratorium would have broad repercussions on the economy,” she said.

In response, the Massachusetts Legislature created the CCC in 1990 to balance land-use planning and economic development in all of Barnstable County’s 15 towns. The CCC was charged with “keeping a special place special” – a broad charge with “some real teeth,” Perry said. During that first decade, it protected “the best of the Cape” while repairing the mistakes of the past.

In a nutshell, the organization anticipates, guides and coordinates the rate and location of development; reviews developments that will have an impact on a community; preserves social diversity and affordable housing; prompts the expansion of employment opportunities; and implements a balanced and sustainable economic-development strategy.

The CCC’s regulatory update for Oct. 26, 2022, provided on its website, showed that it’s currently reviewing six projects, among those a wind-energy generation facility, a mining operation, a large retail grocery store and the redevelopment of a golf course site into a new, multifamily, residential community that includes 312 rental homes in 13 buildings.

The size and scope of a development project generally trigger the CCC’s involvement, Perry said, and at that point, “everything stops on the project. If the CCC approves the project, it can proceed to local permitting, and if not, the project is essentially dead.”

This level of regulatory power wasn’t popular with everyone, and the CCC’s creation was a polarizing one, she said. Not all the towns were on board, and six of them tried, unsuccessfully, to opt out of the CCC as soon as it was formed. 

“Balancing environmental protection and economic progress is very hard,” Perry said, acknowledging that the CCC is “not always a community’s favorite entity, or a developer’s.”

Erin Perry, deputy director of the Cape Cod Commission, spoke virtually this fall during a Door County Environmental Council presentation at the Kress Pavilion.

Cape Cod Commission Versus Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission

The Cape Cod Commission’s (CCC) work covers a broad range of topics, addressing Cape Cod’s needs in land use, transportation, economic development, GIS (geographic information systems), natural resources and more. Erin Perry, the CCC’s deputy director, said to a Door County audience this fall that her organization is similar to regional planning commissions. 

In Wisconsin, the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission, created in 1972 by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey, provides community, economic-development, environmental, GIS and transportation planning and technical assistance to eight northeastern Wisconsin counties – including Door County – and their collective 17 cities, 40 villages and 199 towns. Significantly, unlike the CCC, Bay-Lake, by state statute, is solely an advisory organization to local governments and does not have the regulatory or enforcement authority of the CCC.

Related Organizations