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Stopping the fire-sale of our future

Citizen Action Needed to Prevent Rushed Auction of Priceless Open Space
Lexington Minuteman, Thursday January 6th, 2005
By Jill Stein

Fifty-five acres of open space at the Lexington-Waltham border, the site of the former Middlesex County Hospital (MCH), may soon be whisked off to auction by the state. The impending fire sale of this public resource, and the new state policy that permits it, are both unwise and unjust. Residents have good cause to insist that the auction be stopped, and that the new state land-disposition policy ‚ adopted in virtual secrecy on Beacon Hill ‚ be repealed.

The MCH site is a critical component of the Western Greenway, an invaluable six-mile environmental oasis amidst traffic, noise and pollution that increasingly threaten quality of life and health in our neighborhoods. Rushing this important resource into the hands of the highest bidder not only jeopardizes the Greenway, it also flies in the face of good planning and community participation. Both are essential if we are to meet ‚ and properly balance ‚ our urgent needs for open space, affordable housing and traffic reduction.

Development at the MCH site would add to the glut of recent projects in the Waltham – Lexington border region already bringing 1600 new housing units to the area. Projected development may raise the total to as high as 4000. And because the MCH property is upstream from areas of periodic flooding in Waltham, development at this site also poses a serious water threat to homes and businesses downstream.

The alternative to a fast-track auction is a reuse plan ‚ fashioned with pubic input to serve the public interest. Such a plan could protect the open space to provide community gardens, hiking trails, mountain biking, cross country skiing and more. Encroachment into the open space ‚ if any ‚ could be kept to a minimum, and targeted to serve the urgent community need for affordable housing. Any housing could be clustered to minimize open space loss, and accompanied by public transportation resources to mitigate the regionís growing traffic crisis.

Informal discussions have been taking place for months between DCAM, (the Department of Capital Asset Management, the state agency managing state property disposition) and representatives of Lexington and Waltham. But DCAM has a history of rushing parcels off to auction to the highest bidder with little warning, despite such negotiations. i ii iii iv v At auction communities are forced to compete with developers with deep pockets, virtually locking cash-strapped communities out of the bidding, particularly in light of recent cuts in local aid and open-space funding.

DCAM acquired the power to rush property to auction only recently, through an obscure measure known as ìOutside Section 548.î Itís not surprising that this flawed, undemocratic policy was created by a flawed, undemocratic process ‚ the use of an ìoutside sectionî of the state budget. Since ìoutside sectionsî avoid hearings, debate and recorded votes, this allowed a major policy change to be made without public knowledge or input. Enactment of this legislation in June, 2003, steeply tilted the playing field towards big developers and disempowered municipalities. Specifically, it deprived cities and towns of their right of first refusal and their ability to buy at a fair market value. It also allowed DCAM to bypass the need for specific transfer legislation ‚ thus removing an opportunity for public scrutiny and rational planning.

Outside Section 548 will be up for renewal in June of this year. It will take strong citizen pressure to prevent it from being renewed, and to prevent the auction of the MCH property before the auction law can be changed. Fortunately, such citizen pressure has succeeded in the past, when a similar land auction policy (permitted by the state Supreme Judicial Court in 2002 to fund Clean Elections) was stopped almost overnight by communities incensed at the violation of local land-use authority. Now with vastly greater numbers of communities and acreage at risk, the call to repeal Outside Section 548 may well generate the needed groundswell of public support. But this requires making our voices heard as concerned citizens, and collaborating with public interest organizations, municipal officials and legislators across the Commonwealth.

To help accomplish this, the Lexington Board of Selectman and Town Meeting would do well to follow the example of the Waltham City Council which passed three resolutions offered by Councilor George Darcy. These resolutions call for preserving the MCH site as open space, ask our legislators to work for immediate repeal of Outside Section 548, and request a six-month moratorium on any sale of the MCH property. Concerned residents can help by writing letters to Governor Romney, state officials, and legislators. A list of addresses and sample letters are posted at www.masschc.org. For additional information, email [email protected] or call 781-674-1377.

The future of our communities is too important to be left to accidents at the auction block. By speaking out now, we can ensure that the fate of priceless public land is decided with public input for the public interest ‚ thereby securing a more healthy, just, sustainable future for us all.

i “Armory auction catches Whitman by surprise.” The Enterprise. 3/25/04.

ii “Williamsburg parcel back on the Block ‚ delay of sale rescinded." Daily Hampshire Gazette, 8/11/04.
iii "Armory building to be put on block ‚ armory auction set.” Boston Globe. 7/29/04.
iv "Towns consider alliance. Selectman discuss state hospital site." Boston Globe, Globe West. 1/25/04.
v "Town vows to fight quick sale of land. Development center exempt, Jacques says." Boston Globe. 8/7/03.

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