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Reauthorization of Fast-track Auction Law Fails

Romney Administration forced to retreat in face of growing protest against the stateĆ­s fast-track auction law.

by John Andrews, MCHC correspondent. 2/12/05

An attempt by the Romney Administration to reauthorize the state’s fast-track auction law in the supplemental budget was withdrawn this week in the face of mounting criticism from community groups who charge that the measure flies in the face of good planning and “smart growth”. According to one legislator, the measure was withdrawn because it had become “too controversial”.

Community groups hailed the retreat as a sign that their voices were being heard in the Legislature. If the law is not renewed, it will expire in June.

According to Jill Stein, who launched the effort to repeal the law last October, the attempt at early renewal is an indication that the proponents of the law are worried about the growing public outcry. “It’s no accident that they tried to rush the authorization through in the supplemental budget, without holding public hearings. This is bad legislation and it will never pass muster if it gets full public discussion.”

Prior to this year, most local officials were not aware of the fact that the fast track auctions were a result of specific legislative authorization. Even in communities where land auctions were creating strong public protest, incumbent legislators were usually successful in focusing public displeasure upon the Romney Administration rather than upon the authorizing legislation itself. Shortly after the repeal effort began, the Waltham City Council passed a resolution calling on local legislators to work to repeal the auction authority. Waltham representative Tom Stanley and Lexington representative Jay Kaufman responded by asking their fellow legislators to support repeal. A few weeks later, they reported that 112 legislators had indicated willingness to repeal the measure.

A petition calling for a moratorium on auctions and repeal of the law is being circulated by the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities. So far, over 20 organizations have signed the petition, a number that is now growing daily.

The original law was enacted as Outside Section 548 in 2003. The version proposed for reauthorization in this year’s supplemental budget was called Outside Section 17. It contains certain concessions to the critics. For example, the new measure increases the auction notification period from 30 days to 60 days. It also allows communities to exercise a “right of first refusal.” This gives them 120 days to raise funds to purchase the property. Under the new law, 10% of the selling price will be given to local communities. However, if a community seeks to exercise its right to buy the property and then fails to raise the necessary money to do so, they lose their 10% cut in the eventual selling price. This has been explained as a punishment for delaying the data of the auction.

Groups opposing the auctions feel that the concessions do not address the fundamental problems with the fast-track concept because they do not ensure that the reuse will be consistent with local planning or smart growth principles. They say that the 120 day period for exercising a right to purchase is not meaningful because most municipalities cannot fund land purchases in a fiscal environment in which they are struggling to absorb cuts in state aid.

In an effort to promote reauthorization, Romney’s budget chief, Eric Kriss, has invited legislators to three meetings in early March in which he will defend the auction law and ask legislators to suggest changes to the law that would allow it to be reauthorized. However, adding a few sweeteners to the law is not likely to satisfy citizen groups who say that the reuse of public land should be decided by a community-driven process in which alternatives that best serve the public interest are sought. According to Stein, “There should be selection between multiple alternatives, and the final decision should be made to satisfy community needs – whether for affordable housing, greenspace protection, or job creation. Now we don’t know who will get the property or what they will do with it until the day of the auction. That’s not good planning, and it can create permanent problems for the affected communities.”

Further information on the legislation and the repeal effort can be found on the website of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, www.masschc.org.

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