Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities
Contact: Jill Stein, 617-852-4727, John Andrews, 781-981-7427

In the wake of last week’s sudden House vote on a bill promoting privatization of state lands, (H4278), the Mass. Coalition for Healthy Communities (MCHC) released a letter signed by 32 community and public interest groups calling for hearings and a rewrite of the bill.

According to the letter, “H4278 represents a major shift of power over the disposition of invaluable state assets from a shared municipal-legislative-executive process to one vested almost entirely in the executive branch (and controlled by the office of the governor) In addition, H4278 revises state zoning code to downgrade municipal zoning authority over all land throughout the Commonwealth, not simply state surplus property.”

The sign-on letter was written prior to the final House version of the bill, released from Committee only one day before the unannounced vote. In a note sent to supporters, MCHC noted that “the revised bill – like the version criticized in the sign-on letter – steeply tilts the playing field against the reuse of surplus public land to help meet urgent community needs such as affordable housing, open space protection, or community-based economic development. H4278 effectively eliminates the community’s longstanding ability to guide the use of surplus land without having to purchase it – through specific transfer legislation sponsored by local legislators accountable to the community. Instead the bill provides an ineffective ‘legislative review’ that allows automatic legislative approval of land transfers without a recorded vote, and without a specific plan for the reuse of the property. This allows controversial transfers to be approved without names or details attached to them. The lack of an accountable, transparent approval process in the Jones-Stanley bill is a critical deficiency.”

MCHC also criticized the revised bill for failing to provide a feasible means for cities and towns to acquire surplus public property. While the bill provides a nominal right of first refusal to the local community, it requires payment of 85% of the highest valuation purchase price. Consequently, according to Jill Stein, president of MCHC, “The bill virtually assures that municipalities – widely struggling to pay for teachers and provide health care for employees – will be bypassed. Instead, MassDevelopment Finance Agency, a quasi-state agency promoting private development, will have unimpeded access to some of the Commonwealth’s finest properties. Considering that municipalities have forgone property taxes on these parcels for decades while providing municipal services, properties no longer needed by the state should be offered to local communities at low or no-cost for public use. In tilting the playing field in favor of state-led privatization projects, H4278 squanders an opportunity to use our invaluable public land assets to help meet urgent needs.”

Other problems cited in the letter include concentrating virtually all decisions in the hands of gubernatorial appointees and weakening local zoning with regard to R&D;/manufacturing facilities (a move thought to be crafted on behalf of the biotech industry, whose chief lobbyist is now former Speaker Tom Finneran.). Based on these and other concerns, the 32 public interest groups call for public hearings and new legislation to safeguard a just and sustainable disposition of surplus lands. They recommend such legislation include “accountability and transparency provisions, as well as a balance of executive, legislative and municipal authority over state assets consistent with the checks and balances of a democracy.” (For full text of the letter, see the attachment below, or see




Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi
Senate President Robert E. Travaglini
Chairmen Mark Montigny and David Flynn, Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital
Expenditures and State Assets
Honorable Members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate

Dear Speaker DiMasi, President Travaglini, Chairman Montigny, Chairman Flynn, and the Honorable members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate,

The organizations listed below urge you to postpone a vote on House Bill 4278 until statewide public hearings have been held and fundamental flaws in this bill have been addressed. H4278 represents a major shift of power over the disposition of invaluable state assets from a shared municipal-legislative-executive process to one vested almost entirely in the executive branch (and controlled by the office of the governor). Such concentrations of power are ill-advised, and would sacrifice the current system of checks and balances among levels of government in the disposition of state lands. H4278 also reduces opportunities for public scrutiny, democratic decision-making and other essential safeguards that currently apply to the disposition of state property.

In addition, H4278 revises state zoning code to downgrade municipal zoning authority over all land throughout the Commonwealth, not simply state surplus property.

A bill that makes such sweeping changes over so broad a scope of land-use must not be rushed into law without careful public scrutiny of its provisions and consultation with affected communities.

Because the bill has been unusually expedited, it has received little specific debate or public scrutiny. In July of this year House Bill 4278 was brought to the floor a mere 24 hours after the text of the bill was publicly released. Fortunately, the floor vote was postponed due to questions raised by rank and file legislators. The implications of the bill have been obscured by its title: “Relative to the Development of Underused State Owned Real Property and the Disposition of State Owned Surplus Real Property”. Few affected parties have yet realized that the bill has implications for zoning and land use that reach far beyond currently surplused state properties. In fact, some of the bill’s most important provisions fundamentally alter development on land that does not belong to the state at all.

Several of the provisions of concern are described below.

H4278 CONCENTRATES POWER TO SELL OFF LANDS IN THE HANDS OF GUBERNATORIAL APPOINTEES. H4278 sweeps away checks and balances built into the current provision governing surplus land disposition (Chapter 7, Section 40F, 40.5) to concentrate power to sell off state assets in the hands of gubernatorial appointees. Decision-making is handed over to the Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), the Department of Administration and Finance, MassDevelopment Finance Agency, and a “Surplus Land Coordinating Committee”, (SLCC), composed of a super-majority of gubernatorial appointees. (Section 3a)

H4278 WEAKENS LOCAL ZONING LAWS THROUGHOUT THE COMMONWEALTH by requiring a special permit process for R&D; and manufacturing proposals in any non-residential zoning district. Unlike zoning, the special permitting process allows a developer to challenge any denial in court, creating a risk of costly litigation whenever a municipal permitting authority denies a development proposal. By making denials risky, this provision undermines the municipalities’ traditional zoning authority and ability to guide development to protect the environment and quality of life. Since this provision applies to properties that are not surplus and not state-owned, (as well as surplus properties), it should not appear as an inconspicuous provision in a bill addressing state surplus property. (Section 11)

H4278 REQUIRES ALL PUBLIC OR STATE AGENCIES THAT REGULATE DEVELOPMENT TO DEVELOP A “ONE-STOP” PERMITTING PROCESS THAT UNDERCUTS OPPORTUNITIES FOR LOCAL SCRUTINY AND INFLUENCE OVER PRIVATE DEVELOPMENT PLANS. One-stop permitting as usually practiced places environmental reviews under the purview of bureaucrats who are primarily concerned with expediting development, not protecting long-term community interests. This provision has far-reaching implications. (Section 4d)

H4278 VIRTUALLY ELIMINATES LEGISLATIVE AND LOCAL ACCOUNTABILITY. For most properties, approvals of transfers by the Massachusetts Legislature are eliminated. By eliminating the requirement for approval of specific transfer legislation – traditionally sponsored by the local legislator, accountable to the local community – H4278 largely removes accountability from the disposition process. The only properties whose disposal requires legislative approval are those greater than 25 acres in size which MassDevelopment has declined to develop, and municipalities then declined to purchase. Even then, legislative approval is automatic unless the matter has been brought to a vote resulting in disapproval by the House or Senate within 75 days. In addition, the legislature can only approve or disapprove, but not amend the DCAM/SLCC plan. (Section 5c and others) [NOTE: See update in attached cover letter.]

H4278 MARGINALIZES LOCAL PLANNERS AND EXISTING PLANS. H4278 denies local planning authorities any significant role in planning for the reuse of properties in their communities. Unlike the existing Chapter 7 law, there is no requirement that reuse proposals be consistent with established local plans or that they be consistent with established state policies.

H4278 GIVES MASSDEVELOPMENT (THE MASSACHUSETTS DEVELOPMENT FINANCE AGENCY) THE RIGHT OF FIRST REFUSAL TO ACQUIRE STATE PROPERTY. This constitutes a decision that economic development as conducted by MassDevelopment is the universal priority for reuse of state properties. This biases against fair consideration of other possible priorities, such as affordable housing, open space protection, agricultural preservation, or community-based economic development. (Section 1, 4b, 4c, 4e) [NOTE: See update in attached cover letter.]

H4278 BIASES AGAINST PUBLIC USES PROPOSED BY MUNICIPALITIES. Municipalities lose the current Chapter 7 right to acquire surplus state property for use for a public purpose by a local public agency, such as a local housing authority. H4278 also extends to MassDevelopment – but not to local communities – special rights to acquire state property through 99-year leasing arrangements. This prevents municipalities from acquiring public property at an affordable cost, precluding the effective use of such property to help meet urgent public needs – such as affordable housing, open space preservation or community economic development.

In conclusion, H4278 eliminates current safeguards critical to the fair and democratic disposition of a vital public resource – public lands. H4278 also introduces major revisions to zoning code that undermine longstanding municipal authority to guide development. Therefore we urge the following:

• H4278 should not be rushed into law in the fall legislative session because this would preclude public scrutiny commensurate with its important impacts.

• Public hearings should be conducted across the state to allow affected communities to testify on the impacts of H4278, and to offer alternative provisions to protect community interests in the state zoning code, and in the process of surplus state land disposition.

Based on input at the hearings, new legislation should be considered to safeguard the public’s interest in the just and sustainable disposition of surplus lands. Any such legislation should include transparency and accountability provisions, as well as a balance of executive, legislative, and municipal authority over state assets consistent with the checks and balances of a democracy.

We are happy to discuss this further with you. Please do not hesitate to contact Jill Stein at [email protected], 617-852-4727 if you have any questions or need more information.

(in alphabetical order by municipality/region)

Belchertown Residents for Responsible Growth
Kate O’Connor, Chair

Berkshire Environmental Action Team
Jane Winn, Director

Boston Natural Areas Network
Vidya Tikku, Vice President

Boxborough Conservation Trust
Rita Gibes Grossman, President

Brookline, Chestnut Hill Village Associates, Inc.
Lee Rachel Jurman, Co-President

Brookline Neighborhood Alliance
Diana Spiegel and Sean-Lynn Jones, Co-chairs

Brookline PAX
Marty Rosenthal and Frank Farlow, Co-Chairs

Cape Codders for Peace and Justice
David Agnew, Representative

Center for Democracy and the Constitution
Adam Sacks, Executive Director

Coalition to Reform 40B
John Belskis, Chair

Cohasset Action
Michael Westcott

Franklin County, Valley Community Land Trust
Scott Reed, Board Member

Groton, Townline Neighborhood Association
Kristen McEvoy, Chair

Haverhill Unitarian Universalist Church, Green Sanctuary Committee
Richard Smyth, Co-chair

Lawrence Environmental Action Group
Richard McCarthy, President

Lexington, Citizens for Lexington Conservation
Eileen Entin, Chair

Marshfield Action
Maria Asvestas, Chair

Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities
Jill Stein, President

Mass Peace Action
Susanna Porte, Board Chair

Mass Global Action
Jason Pramus, Director

Jennifer Baker, Environmental Associate

Mass. Welfare Rights Union
Laurie Taymour-Berry, Vice President

Merrimack Valley Environmental Coalition
Joan Kulash, Co-Chair

Monterey Land Trust
Joyce Brown, Board Member

Newton, Green Decade Coalition
Dan Ruben, Vice President

Physicians for Social Responsibility, Greater Boston area chapter
Maria Valenti, Executive Director

Roxbury Neighborhood Council
Robert Terrell, Chair

Sharon Friends of Conservation
Alice Cheyer, Secretary

Sierra Club, Massachusetts Chapter
James McCaffrey, Director

Sisters Together Ending Poverty, Las Hermanas Unidas Terminando La Pobresa
Alice Faison, Lisa Richards, Co-Presidents

Survivors Inc.
Dottie Stevens, Board President

Swampscott, Coalition for Health of Aggregate Industries Neighbors
Smilia Marvosh, President