State's Doug Foy: Guiding Four State Agencies in New Regime


He switched teams, changing from private to public, from advocacy to bureaucracy, from an attorney who led the fierce charge for environmental protection to an Uber-secretary with a lofty title and a post in state government to match.

But on Doug Foy, the drape of the new uniform appears to be just right.

Six months ago Mr. Foy stepped down after 25 years at the helm of the private nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation, and accepted a post with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. As the new Chief of Commonwealth Development, Mr. Foy is in charge of four state agencies: transportation, housing, environment and energy.

"It came along unexpectedly," Mr. Foy said in an interview this week. "My portfolio is different. I have a whole different set of tools now and it is a more refined balancing act. When you're working for an advocacy group it's the art of the pure, and when you're working for the government it's the art of the possible."

Mr. Foy was keynote speaker at the annual summer fund raiser for the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, held at Misty Meadows Farm in West Tisbury on Monday evening. The event, marking the 45th anniversary for Sheriff's Meadow, drew a crowd of more than 300 to the home of Carol and Jerome Kenney.

Earlier in the day during a visit to the Gazette, Mr. Foy spoke about the environment, the Vineyard, state government and beyond. Smiling, relaxed, he had about him an air of confidence - and possibility - that sometimes comes with a midlife career change.

In recent months there has been a good deal of jousting between the newly elected Republican governor and the Democratic legislature about titles and responsibility, but in the end Mr. Foy said titles are just titles.

"Who cares? I hired the four cabinet secretaries who work for me, and as long as the governor is committed to make things happen, what does the title matter?" he said.

Questioned about the state environmental agenda, he stuck to the broad themes: Open space, forests, the critical need to hang onto the small farms and the fishermen.

"The reason West Tisbury is West Tisbury is you still have the farm fields here," he said, noting that Massachusetts has some 500,000 acres in farmland, a number worthy of preservation. "We need to keep the farmers in farming and the fishermen in fishing - this is partly what the Vineyard is all about and it does still have a working fishery," Mr. Foy said. He was less specific about how to actually accomplish the goal. The state agricultural preservation restriction (APR) program that buys developments rights on farmland is still alive and well, he said, although he avoided any talk about real funding for the program in a year when the state budget and drastic cuts to local aid have dominated the news.

Cars - and the pollution they create - are a key issue for Mr. Foy. A longtime summer visitor to Nantucket, he said it bugs him that the Steamship Authority lets cars off the ferry first, before the bikes and the passengers. "It sends a message that you'd rather have the cars here, when in fact what you want to do is encourage people to come a different way," he said.

When Mr. Foy worked for the Conservation Law Foundation and lived in Sherborn, it was not unusual for him to ride his bike 23 miles to work. But he does not pretend to be a purist and he said he owns three cars.

He praised the Vineyard transit system. Talk turned to traffic congestion, and Mr. Foy's stellar education, which includes a degree from Princeton University in physics and engineering and a Harvard Law degree, began to show.

"Congestion is essentially turbulence and it's the last five per cent of vehicles that cause turbulence. And the argument for public transit is this: take that last five per cent, pull them out of their cars and put them in buses and your roads will be fine for all but the peak days," he said.

Global warming is his favorite subject. "I think it is the single most critical environmental issue that we have. Nothing is even a close second," he said. "If it turns out to be as bad as is predicted it's devastating." Taking climate change seriously, he said, is like buying home insurance. "And what people are talking about is that we buy the insurance now," he said.

In what proved to be a sneak preview of his speech for the Sheriff's Meadow crowd that night, he posed a question.

"How many SUVs do we have to take off the roads on the Cape and Islands to offset the carbon dioxide that will be saved by building the Cape Wind project? I haven't done the calculation yet, but I'll bet it's every SUV. You can't be opposed to Cape Wind and drive an SUV," he declared.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that Doug Foy favors Cape Wind, the controversial plan to build a huge, privately financed for-profit wind farm on 24 square miles of Nantucket Sound. He said he has no position on the project - at least not yet.

"We don't have all the facts yet," he said simply. He said he does favor the need to do something on an industrial scale. "You can't do token renewables anymore. If you're going to deal with it you've got to deal with it in a big way," he said. But when it comes to the Cape Wind project, Mr. Foy said there needs to be more discussion about the idea of using public land for private industry. "We don't just give away public land for free - all the European wind farms are municipal," he said, adding:

"We need large scale renewable energy and we can't just sit around waiting for it to happen. But there are still questions about whether this is the right site. And if Nantucket Sound is not the right site, then we have to decide where is the right site."

Mr. Foy praised the work of the state task force on Chapter 40B, which is expected to result in some change and tailoring in the state law that was designed 30 years ago to promote affordable housing. "What 40B misses is the village and community concept," he said. "You couldn't build a New England village today because it would violate zoning - but villages are one of our best assets. Wyoming has the incredible beauty of its mountains but here in New England we've got communities that knock their socks off."

But he stopped short of calling Chapter 40B a complete solution. "It's really only one part and I don't claim to have all the answers," he said.

More than once Doug Foy has been called an unlikely choice for a cabinet post in state government, but in truth he said his background at the Conservation Law Foundation offered the perfect training ground.

"In some ways I think working for an advocacy group is the best preparation for government service, because you have a clear view of the inside. Dealing with the fiscal problems is a hair-raising experience. But it forces us all to be smarter," Mr. Foy said. "And I think the measure of how well you did in an organization is how well it does when you are gone. CLF is doing very well," he added.

He concluded with a broad smile:

"I am awaiting the first CLF lawsuit again me."