Erik Arvidson Sentinel & Enterprise, Erik Arvidson Sentin 2005-07-22
7/22/05, Sentinel & Enterprise, Fitchburg
House abandons controversial land legislation
By Erik Arvidson Sentinel & Enterprise Statehouse Bureau
BOSTON — Democratic leaders in the Massachusetts House 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 from cities and towns.
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi canceled a vote planned for Thursday on the controversial legislation, which would allow for the state to expedite the sale of surplus property without the approval of the Legislature.
Lawmakers from urban, suburban and rural parts of the state were all concerned that the bill gave too much power to MassDevelopment, the state’s quasi-independent economic development agency, to dispose of land.
Many legislators were concerned that the bill would lead to critical open space being sold to developers, with little ability to local planning agencies 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 Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, who said she 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. MassDevelopment would still be required to hold a public hearing before the agency could go forward with any development project.
“This bill is a complete end run around the planning process,” Stein said. “It completely sidelines local planners, conservation commissions, and housing authorities.”
Supporters of the bill argue that the current system is too cumbersome because it requires a piece of legislation for each 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 of existence. For the three-year period prior to the change, the sale of state property averaged less than $2 million a year.
“This bill put too much of a preference toward development, not what would be a good fit for the town or the Commonwealth,” said state Rep. James Eldridge, D-Acton. “I agree there needs to be a quicker process, but it’s critical that the cities and towns retain the right of first refusal.”
Eldridge said that if a local community decides a parcel of open space being sold by the state should remain undeveloped, “that wish should be respected.”
The 2003 law allowing the state to fast-track the sale of surplus land expired on June 30. Though the Senate approved a budget amendment to reauthorize the law, the House did not follow suit.