Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the last name of Seaman Piper Turner II, which was inadvertently left out.
MASHPEE — Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, remembers in the 1970s when she could pick blueberries where the Stop & Shop now stands. She could walk to the rotary without worrying about traffic, and from her house on Quinaquisset Avenue she could hear the music coming from the On the Rocks bar.
“It was just a different world,” said Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “It was a different time.”
In 1965, a shopping plaza with a grocery store, a pharmacy and a home and garden store sat at the intersection of routes 151 and 28 — and served the town’s 665 year-round residents. The Tisit gas station was next to the rotary, and Dick and Ellie’s sold fried seafood and ice cream near where The Shed Place is today.
The rest of the area was undeveloped and would stay that way for another decade.
In 1986, the plaza began to be transformed into Mashpee Commons, a downtown center reminiscent of a New England historic district with a modern twist. The streets were laid out in a grid and were lined with restaurants and shops — both boutique and chain — and apartments were constructed above.
Mashpee grew and expanded, becoming the fastest-growing town in the country at one point in the 1980s. By 2000 the population swelled to almost 13,000, according to the U.S. Census.
Mashpee Commons grew in phases, developing 55 acres into businesses and housing, fueling population, job and tax revenue growth. Now there are plans to continue to develop its remaining 132 acres over at least the next 25 years that will likely add hundreds of homes and increase commercial space.
The town of Mashpee and Cape Cod Commission recently signed an agreement with the developers — the first of its kind on Cape Cod — that will give the town a seat at the table when details of future development are being put to paper and discussed in exchange for streamlined permitting.
Changing zoning from single-use to mixed-use
Mashpee Commons was built after the development of New Seabury in the 1960s. The then-new upscale seaside community offered housing, golf courses and a beach club.
The 62,000-square-foot New Seabury shopping center was a “classic, badly designed urban shopping center,” said Douglas Storrs, a part-owner of Mashpee Commons who helped plan the development from the start.
“You couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee in Mashpee at that time,” said Mary LeClair, who worked at the first bank of Mashpee, which opened in 1966.
Since 1929, Mashpee Commons President and Treasurer Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr’.s.family has owned the land on which New Seabury, Popponesset and Mashpee Commons now sit. Chace’s father, Malcolm Chace, a Rhode Island industrialist, started purchasing land in the area back then, according to the town of Mashpee website.
In the late 1970s when Buff took over the business, he envisioned a hub where people could live above commercial businesses and walk to work and to stores, like a little city. He was inspired by his dislike of developments that sprawled out across the Cape, where people had to drive from one place to another.
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At the time, however, zoning was restricted to single-use purposes Buff said, one for a house, another for a business. He and his team proposed a different approach to zoning — moving from single-use to mixed-use on the same piece of property.
Mashpee Commons representatives worked with the Mashpee zoning and planning boards to override bylaws that required large setbacks from roads. After about a year of back-and-forths, the town approved the plan, Storrs said.
“It was very straightforward,” he said. “It was a very proactive planning board and a proactive zoning board. They understood the goal of the plan and the benefit of Mashpee having its own downtown.”
A few years later, the developer started putting up the first buildings, Storrs said. As demand for housing and retail grew, Mashpee Commons kept building incrementally.
What’s next for Mashpee Commons?
The developers have not shared detailed plans for the next phases of development, but outlines exist of what they envision.
That vision includes three district sub-areas: the “core,” “transition” and “edge.” The core includes the center of Mashpee Commons and has the most mix of homes and businesses. The transition area will also be mixed-use, but with a greater emphasis on housing than the core. The edge will be reserved exclusively for homes.
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The expansion will extend past the Mashpee rotary into what will be called the Trout Pond neighborhood, which will have a transition zone of both commercial and residential, followed by green space reaching as far as the Mashpee River. The Whitings neighborhood and the Job’s neighborhood will be behind the Mashpee Public Library. The Bates neighborhood, covered by transitional zoning with both residential and commercial, will be located between the Police Department and the Stop & Shop building.
The number of housing units is still unclear. Over 25 years, the maximum number of units possible ranges from 185 units in the edge area to 1,075 in the transition area and 450 in the core area, according to the development agreement between the town, the Cape Cod Commission and the developers.
It’s not clear how many housing units will ultimately be built that will be determined over time under the three-party agreement, which is leaving some residents feeling uneasy.
During a tense Mashpee Planning Board meeting Wednesday, several residents said they worry about the number of homes and the impact a dramatic increase in housing would have on the environment and traffic.
The housing developments will vary in styles, from small single-family units to apartments, and at least 10% will be affordable. The current market rate for one- and two-bedroom units range from $1,225 to $2,500, according to Mashpee Commons.
“We’re trying to respond to the current situation,” Buff said, referring to the housing shortage on Cape Cod and changes in commerce and retail business due to the rise of e-commerce.
Concerns about the environmental impact
The development of Mashpee Commons has struck a different chord with some members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
In 1976, members of the tribe — before it was federally recognized — filed a land claim in federal court because developers such as Mashpee Commons and New Seabury were coming in, said Brian Weeden, the newly elected chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council. Tribe members wanted to protect Mother Earth and the land’s resources, he said.
The lawsuit claimed that land in Mashpee and parts of Sandwich, Falmouth and Barnstable, which had been deemed Wampanoag lands by a Colonial-era judge, had been illegally taken from the tribe in violation of the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790. Under that law, all sales of Indian land had to be approved by the federal government, and the tribe said the sale of Wampanoag land had never received such approval.
The lawsuit named the developer of New Seabury and 145 other non-Native landowners who held title to 20 or more acres, and served as a class action against more than 1,500 other homeowners.
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The case halted all development and Mashpee property owners feared they could no longer sell their homes. The suit generated animosity toward the Wampanoag. At one point the tribal council proposed exempting already-developed land from the suit and giving the tribe title to the undeveloped land.
A federal jury in Boston, looking at cultural criteria for specific times in history as set by the federal Judge Walter J. Skinner, found that the Mashpee Wampanoag constituted a tribe during some years but not in others. Skinner dismissed the case in 1978, finding that the Mashpee Wampanoag were not a tribe and therefore had no standing to sue.
Once the case was dismissed development was allowed to resume. The Mashpee Wampanoag received federal recognition in 2007 by the federal Department of the Interior after filing an application with deeply researched historical, geographical and genealogical information about the tribe. Recognition, among other things, authorized the tribe to acquire land and establish a reservation.
Seaman Piper Turner II, a 78-year-old member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said that tribal members were upset about the developments in the 1970s and ’80s, and worried about the impact they would have on the environment as well as the residents’ tax rates.
He remembers when the tribe would hold powwows near Shoestring Bay before it became private property, and he remembers when Popponesset Bay and the Gooseberry Island was full of shellfish and eels before nitrogen from fertilizers and septic systems polluted the rivers and estuaries.
“But now (they’re) gone,” Piper said. “Because they built this town up too much,”
Weeden opposes the next phase of expansion at Mashpee Commons and is disappointed that even after more than 40 years of bringing awareness to the environmental issues, Mashpee Commons owners still think development is a good idea considering the state of pollution.
“I never thought we’d keep building up until we look like Hyannis and Falmouth,” Weeden said.
Concerns about nitrogen pollution
Mashpee Commons installed its own wastewater treatment system in 1988 and all of its buildings are hooked up to it as well as the nearby library, police and fire departments and the senior center, Buff said.
The capacity of the plant is 180,000 gallons a day, and it currently processes 90,000 gallons, Thomas Feronti, director of planning and construction for Mashpee Commons, said during a Mashpee Planning Board meeting on Wednesday. There is a contemplated expansion that will allow the plant to go to 280,000 gallons a day, he said.
Mashpee River is one of the more polluted rivers on the Cape as pollution from the town dump leaches into the water, Buff said. He said he wants to find ways to clear up the problem but has no specific plans.
Even with homes hooked up to the sewage treatment facility, Baird worries about the impact hundreds of new housing units will have on the environment.
“I think it’s really telling that the tribe’s been here for millennia and did not have a problem with clean water,” she said. “Because of overdevelopment we’ve managed to ruin our waterways in one generation. It’s really sad.”
Baird is also worried about the affordability of the new homes. While the Mashpee Commons says some units will be affordable, it depends on what their definition of “affordable” is, she said.
Three-party agreement between government and developer
“I know that there is a question of ‘what it will look like?’” said Sarah Chace, a partner at Mashpee Commons. The answer, she said, is the same thing they have been doing.
The three-party agreement allows for the major participants to collaborate, building the plans together, she said, rather than Mashpee Commons presenting a plan to town boards and engage in a back-and-forth permitting process.
The Chace family also hopes the agreement will allow the process to be streamlined, so that they can meet the housing demand more quickly.
The “smart-growth community” that will be designated as a community activity center by the Cape Cod Commission will range in house types, diverse commercial uses, civic spaces and open space, according to the development agreement.
Mary Waygan, a member of the Mashpee Planning Board, said she voted in favor of the tri-party agreement and looks forward to seeing actual details of the proposal.
“I just encourage the residents of Mashpee and Falmouth and Barnstable to pay close attention to this,” she said. “This is a classic development of regional impact.”
Mashpee has the largest amount of undeveloped land on Cape Cod, Baird said, and she would like to keep it that way. About 29% — 4,159 acres — in Mashpee is protected land, according to the town.
“My idea of success is open space, affordable housing, clean air and clean water as well as commerce,” Baird said. “This plan is not that.”
Contact Jessica Hill at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @jess_hillyeah.