Exceptionally high rates of development in the mid-1980s gave Cape Cod residents powerful motivation to coordinate the use of their land and to protect its most precious resource, its water supply. Although Barnstable County's Cape Cod Planning and Economic Development Commission (CCPEDC) had worked steadily since 1965 to establish water protection bylaws and solid waste management agreements, the agency was limited in its ability to manage regional growth and its potential for negative impacts on this fragile landform. The building boom that peaked in 1985 brought into sharp focus just how modest the existing tools to control growth were across the region.
In 1986 and 1987, CCPEDC's nine-month strategic planning initiative, "Prospect: Cape Cod," brought together participants from a diverse cross-section of the Cape community to discuss equally diverse issue areas, such as environmental quality, land use, economic development, support services, health and human services, and housing. The initiative produced consensus on 60 recommendations and established a goal of putting policy proposals into place in five years.
Among the major ideas advanced through "Prospect: Cape Cod" was the notion of a regional land use agency to address weaknesses in existing land use decision making on Cape Cod. Participants noted that the impacts caused by major developments could, and often did, span multiple Cape Cod towns, but were reviewed by only one. They also noted that Cape Cod projects often fell short of the thresholds that triggered the state's environmental review processes and yet were large projects by Cape Cod standards. They agreed that the state's procedures and land use policies often inadequately addressed Cape Cod's critical environmental constraints.
Following the structure and the legal precedents established by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Attorney Donald Connors, who had participated in "Prospect: Cape Cod," drafted a proposal for legislation to create a regional land use planning and regulatory agency. Simultaneously, but independent from "Prospect: Cape Cod," former U.S. Senator Paul E. Tsongas, a summer resident of Chatham, proposed a moratorium on development on Cape Cod until the region's sole source aquifer was better understood. The boldness of Tsongas's idea and the vision of "Prospect: Cape Cod" set the stage for a movement that ultimately led to the establishment of the Cape Cod Commission.
A ballot question in November 1988 resulted in 76 percent of Cape voters endorsing the creation of the Commission. The vote initiated a 14-month legislative process that concluded with the signature of then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis on the Cape Cod Commission Act in January 1990. In essence, the former CCPEDC had been given regulatory powers by the Massachusetts General Court at the request of the voters of Cape Cod. The Act required additional ratification through a special county-wide ballot in March 1990. Majority support prevailed and has continued for three decades.