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Opposition to Fast Track Auctions Gains Momentum
by John Edward, MCHC correspondent
February 15, 2005

Communities in Massachusetts were already facing fiscal crises due to cuts in local aid from the state. But in 2003 they began encountering another challenge resulting from a new state policy. This policy allowed the disposal of state land via fast-track auctions without legislative approval. Critics charge this policy threatens the ability of cities and towns to control land use within their borders. From the perspective of community planners it subverts local development plans designed to promote affordable housing, open space preservation and smart growth.

Now a rebellion that started in the Waltham/Lexington area has spread across the state. Its focus is on repealing legislation known as OS548. The objective is to restore public involvement and community planning to land use decisions.

OS548 is an “outside section” that was attached to the FY2004 budget. It involves the reuse of state-owned land in an effort to respond to revenue shortfalls. Many public policy advocates, including the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, have called for meaningful tax reform rather than one-time fixes (for more information see http://www.masschc.org/story_opin.php?id=36). Governor Romney and the state house leadership instead decided to generate funds by selling valuable state property to private developers.

On the surface, this sounds like it could be a reasonable policy. Why not put unused armories and hospital properties to good use, and generate a little cash for other programs? However, who gets to decide what represents “good use” of the land in our communities? Moreover, who considers the multiple long-term impacts of redevelopment of public land by private developers?

Critics charge that under OS548, revenue generation, and not good land use, has been the overriding motivation of the reuse process. Under OS548, cities and towns have effectively no guaranteed control over how parcels are developed. OS548 provides for a fast-track auction. The Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) is in charge, and their marching orders are to maximize revenue generation. DCAM is only required to provide 30 days notice before auctioning off property to the highest bidder. Community officials have noted that one month is a woefully inadequate time interval in which to plan, respond, and prepare bids for the auction. Too often, fast-track auctions result in irreplaceable land being rushed into the hands of real estate developers whose goal is to implement the most profitable reuse project – which usually tilts the playing field towards building the greatest density possible of higher-end housing units. Jill Stein, President of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, characterized the current policy as “squandering of public resources for private gain.”

Conflicts between state land use policies and communities are not new. Controversy has long swirled around Chapter 40B, the well-intentioned but flawed legislation designed to promote affordable housing. This newest battle over fast-track authority slipped into law without debate as an outside section. Outside Sections have been criticized by groups ranging from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government, as a distortion of the democratic process. Outside sections allow legislation to bypass the committee process, allow legislators to avoid public hearings, and protect legislators from the accountability that comes with open debate and roll call votes.

Since the first call for repeal in October 2004, opposition to OS548 has been successfully organizing on a statewide basis. Progress on a repeal petition has gained momentum. Successful stories of resistance to the auctions have provided encouragement to local land use advocates.

The issue first emerged in the mainstream media in an August 2004 Boston Globe editorial that noted problems surrounding a land sale in Williamsburg. In October 2004, Jill Stein, who had been investigating land reuse issues in the Waltham/Lexington area, identified OS548 as the underlying source of local citizen concerns and called for its repeal. Since then, community leaders and legislators across the state have become aware of the issue, and are fighting back. In the process, they are finally generating debate over legislation that avoided public scrutiny for months. Key events in the growing opposition to fast-track auctions include:

In December of 2004, the Waltham City Council unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Councilor George Darcy calling on local legislators to work toward repeal of OS548.

In early January of this year, the Lexington Minuteman published an Op-ed piece by Jill Stein, in which she spoke out against the “fire sale” of land that represents an important resource to both Lexington and Waltham.

Representatives Tom Stanley and Jay Kaufman announced their intention to file a repeal bill and asked colleagues to lend support. The January 19, 2005 edition of the New Bedford Standard-Times reported that over 80 state house legislators had indicated that they would support the repeal. The Daily News Tribune has reported 113 of 197 legislators have signed a letter in support of repeal.

Citizens in Lexington introduced an article for Lexington town meeting calling for the repeal of OS548. In a hearing before the Lexington Planning Board on February 2, an unusually large crowd voiced strong support for the repeal article and the planning board expressed sympathy with their concerns. A town meeting vote on the article is expected in March.

In mid-February, the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities reported that 20 organizations have already signed a petition asking the Governor and legislature to repeal OS548 and support public debate and community involvement regarding land use policy.

The proponents of fast-track auctions have realized that the law is in trouble and appear to be adopting several strategies to save it. One approach is to offer minor concessions to communities, such as an increasing the notification period to 90 days. The citizen groups feel that such tinkering does not address fundamental issues such as the inherent right of communities to guide the reuse of public land so that the reuse serves the public interest and is compatible with local planning. Jill Stein observed, “The future of our communities is too important to be left to accidents at the auction block.” As far as community planners are concerned, these concessions, offered as appeasement to ever-growing opposition to fast-track auctions, do not represent anything resembling an adequate response to a public policy failure.

Fast-track proponents attempted to rush through an early extension of the law before public pressure can grow any further. Citizen groups argue that decisions that have permanent impacts on communities should not be decided in a haphazard way using a flawed process. They want a moratorium on auctions until sound reuse processes can be put in place. Whatever the outcome, the debate is out in the open and communities appear poised to reassert their rights to ensure that the reuse of public land within their borders serves the public interest.

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