BOSTON — Democratic leaders in the Massachusetts House have backed away from a proposal to fast-track the auction of surplus state-owned land after lawmakers raised concerns that the legislation would strip away local planning rights for cities and towns.
Among the lawmakers who sought to delay a vote was state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who said officials could not provide him with an inventory of property in Berkshire County that could go on the market.
Pignatelli also voiced concern about the possibility that state forest land could end up being sold.
“We have large tracts of state-owned
land in the Berkshires,” he said. “We’ve made a huge effort to protect open space, and is the state going to carve out certain parcels for development?”
He joined other Democratic lawmakers in criticizing the elimination of the two-thirds vote in the Legislature currently required for the sale of state surplus property, and a proposal to hand the decision-making over to a new state commission.
Lawmakers from urban, suburban and rural parts of the state all had similar concerns, that the bill gave too much power to MassDevelopment, the state’s quasi-independent economic development agency, to dispose of land.
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi canceled a vote planned for last Thursday on the legislation.
Many legislators were concerned that the bill would lead to critical open space being sold to developers, with local planning agencies having little ability to protest.
“Communities would be bypassed in their ability to plan for the future with regard to these important public resources,” said Jill Stein, chairman of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, who was pleased that a vote was postponed. “Surplus land is an important resource, and it should be used to benefit our communities, not exploit them.”
Some lawmakers said DiMasi told Democratic House members in a caucus that the bill was too controversial, and that it could be reworked and brought up for a vote in the fall.
Opponents of the bill took issue with a provision that allows MassDevelopment the right of “first refusal” when the state sells a parcel of surplus land, a right that now belongs to a local community.
A public hearing by MassDevelopment would still be required before the agency would go forward with any development project.
“This bill is a complete end run around the planning process. It completely sidelines local planners, conservation commissions and housing authorities,” Stein said.
Supporters of the bill argue that the current system is too cumbersome because it requires legislation for every separate transaction.
There are approximately 2,200 acres of surplus state-owned land that contain about 300 buildings, according to the state Division of Capital Asset Management. Officials estimate that by June 30, the fast-track auction program will have generated nearly $38 million in its two years. For the three-year period prior to the change, the sale of state property averaged less than $2 million a year.
The 2003 law allowing the state to fast-track the sale of surplus land expired June 30. Though the Senate approved a budget amendment to reauthorize the law, the House did not follow suit.