Editorial: What would a carrying capacity study on Nantucket look like?

For years, people on Nantucket have been talking about studying the island’s carrying capacity. It’s an easy thing to say. “We need a carrying capacity study!” But it’s a little bit like the question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” in the book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Since the question is a bit vague, when you finally find the answer (Which, in the HHGTTG, was, “42”) it’s completely meaningless because the question is either subjective or poorly conceived. Ask a random sampling of islanders what the carrying capacity of the island is and you’ll get a range of answers. Some will say (in a tone of bitterness and some loud sighing) that we passed it in 1980. Others will say that with some creative up-zoning, apartment complexes, and dorms, we could easily handle another 20,000 people year-round and at least another 20,000 seasonally. 

The question is the wrong one to ask. It’s not a matter of capacity. It’s a question of what islanders are willing to accept as an impact on their quality of life. 

Expressed more specifically, what are the metrics we can employ to make decisions about growth and economics? Instead of measuring the number of cars, boats, trucks, airplanes, houses, cubic yards of hot-mix asphalt, pounds of fertilizer, bundles of shingles, people, and pets, maybe we should measure the social, emotional, and economic impact those things have to decide our collective tolerance level as a community? 

(Fortunately, Sustainable Nantucket did a lot of the groundwork back in 1992 when it was called the Nantucket Sustainable Development Corporation and they published their extremely comprehensive Indicators Report. They measured dozens of things we all care about. So there’s a good blueprint for anyone who wants to keep looking at these trends. Be prepared for some frustration and hand-wringing when reading this 21-year-old report if you are a member of the anti-growth camp.)

The biggest hurdle: getting people to agree. 

We all know this to be true. A very big problem exists. Different people in the community value different things. Some people value the ability to create wealth — for themselves, their families, their employees, and friends. (And who can blame them? Money sure comes in handy.) Other people value peace and quiet. Others value safety for themselves and their family. And others value a sense of community. Getting all of these people to agree on a number for cars, houses, and people is problematic because, in a lot of instances, people’s needs and desires operate at cross-purposes. Creating and building wealth often means dialing up things like cars, houses, and infrastructure while seeking peace and quiet means easing them downward. 

With less than 5% of the island still developable, we may get to the point very soon where we reach an economic compromise where very few people are happy. The ability to grow and create massive wealth through the development of unimproved land will be stunted, yet as year-round homes give way to vacation homes (the trend in this direction is clear as of this writing) the peace-and-quiet crowd will only have more to make them unhappy. 

Another hurdle: an exercise in disappointment

A comprehensive carrying capacity study would be expensive and a heavy lift from a manpower perspective. That’s one reason no one has attempted it in the past 20 years. Another reason: Many of the folks who are calling for a study of carrying capacity are doing so because they are unhappy with the recent rash of 40B developments in previously quiet and undeveloped island spots. They are looking for ammunition to further their argument. But what if they don’t get the answers they seek? Ultimately, the results that such a study might provide will likely please only a few nerdy, wonk-ish types like me— certainly not a plurality of voters and taxpayers. Any finding that indicates we need to curtail development and growth will be met with extreme side-eye from the wealth-building contingency. And what if the study indicates that if we can work to mitigate things like water quality, noise, crime, and affordable housing (all efforts that are in full swing as of this writing), the island can handle a lot more houses, cars, and people, so we should consider up-zoning?

The simple truth is, we can’t go back to 1990. Even if we really want to. Even if we clench our fists, close our eyes tightly, and wish really, really hard (trust me, I’ve tried). Ultimately any study of this grand Nantucket economic moving target will point to the fact that the things that we can measure were quantitatively better when there were only 7,500 houses, 8,000 registered vehicles, several of our now-paved roads were dirt and the scallop harvest was a decent-but-not-great 42,000 bushels a year. In 1990, people were sounding the alarm bells about housing, water quality, growth, and change just like today. Still, the grass was much greener two decades in the past. But that does not help us now; it only makes our outlook feel bleaker by comparison. 

So what would a carrying capacity study measure?

Putting all of the really valid reasons not to open this complicated economic pandora’s box aside, what might a study try to do? Ideally, a somewhat simplified theory of Nantucket capacity would include these five things: 

1. Traffic (Number of registered vehicles, emissions, wait times)

2. Public Health (Physical and mental, social/public engagement)

3. Housing (Housing gaps, housing insecurity, transience)

4. Environmental impacts (Air, water, fisheries)

5. Public safety (crime, domestic violence, first responders)

I list these six categories and 15 data points because they are all things we have measured for a number of years, so historical data exists in some form. These issues are also closely connected to, correlated with, and/or caused by the mechanisms a community can attempt to regulate like public safety, zoning, density, emissions, and vehicles. Then we would need to set baseline metrics for what is acceptable as a community. 

So, for example, if we can say that XX,000 registered vehicles puts out XXX parts per million harmful emissions and results in XXX minutes of wait time per vehicle per year, and those things are X% past what we are willing to tolerate as a community, we can then work on ways to make things better — by either capping the number of vehicles the island will allow (very difficult), seeking better emissions standards island-wide (time-consuming and difficult) and/or encouraging alternate forms of transportation that have less of an impact on emissions, traffic or parking (not easy but easier than the alternatives). 

Is it all worth it?

This kind of effort is expensive. I could probably throw out a number, based on my years of developing communications materials for a range of clients and working with subject matter experts. But I suspect that half of the people reading this would say it was too much to pay, and the other half would likely say that they thought it should have more zeros. 

Another problem with paying the money and doing the work is that unless everyone on the island signs an agreement to abide by the findings, such a study would likely have very little impact. We have a long history of tossing up our hands and saying, “oh, well…” on Nantucket. It reminds me of the quote from Editor of the Hartford Courant, Charles Dudley Warner in 1897, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Like so many things in our life, we feel that the forces working against us are either out of our control or unwise to mess with.

Despite that, we are looking down the barrel of at least eight economic trends that cannot be sustained and if we allow them to continue unabated, our community will likely be damaged for a generation or more:

  • Scallop harvest — as the NSDC stated in 1992, scallops represent our canary in a coal mine. And today, the canary is lying panting on the newspapers at the bottom of its cage. 
  • Development — the number of bedrooms on the island contiunues to grow. But the island still remains 47.8 square miles (30,000 acres).* 
  • Infrastructure — Energy, sewer, roads, parking, freight boats, and more are at capacity for all or part of the year. 
  • Population — continues to grow.
  • Year-round housing at all price points — continues to shrink. 
  • Housing—It’s never been this bad. And some people believe that we are losing a year-round home (ownership or rental) every 5–1/2 days. 
  • Jobs—At some point, the number of construction jobs is going to drop. And the hospitality jobs are not going to pay enough to sustain a family. So what does a person do?
  • Climate—It’s an island. And the storms are growing and seas are rising. 

Perhaps a carrying capacity study is less important than addressing these eight things? Or perhaps, in point of fact, it is all about addressing these eight things? Let us know your thoughts. We will be working on it in the meantime. 

*Thanks to Peter Brace for measuring them all and providing the exact number
Download the NSDC Indicators Report here.

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