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Surplus Land Yields New Park, Affordable Housing

John Andrews, MCHC,, John Andrews, MCHC

August 24, 2006
Surplus Land Yields New Park, Affordable Housing
by John Andrews, MCHC

On a beautiful August morning, some 45 residents of surrounding communities assembled for a walking tour of the new Beaver Brook North Reservation in Waltham, a 254-acre parcel of parkland that was carved out of state surplus land. The park includes extensive wetlands, mature forest, vernal pools, and a summit with a commanding view toward Boston.

The walk was sponsored by the Waltham Land Trust, a local group that is working with the state Dept. of Conservation and Recreation to plan the future of the property. Walk leader Marie Daly noted that the land was a “real jewel” that was long appreciated by neighbors, but is now being opened for enjoyment by a wider public.

Local Involvement Was Critical to the Outcome

The opening of the new reservation culminates a victory for local citizens and planning officials, who had been concerned that the land would be developed and closed to the public. The land was part of the 343-acre Metropolitan State Hospital that closed in 1992. At that time, the state declared the property to be surplus to state needs, and stated their intention to put the property on the market under the states Chapter 7 disposition process.

When the property was first declared surplus, the state agency managing the disposition told local residents that the property was “the last great piece of land left inside of Route 128 . . . and we think it would be of great interest to a major corporation seeking to build a world headquarters.” The DCPO project manager declared that “maximizing financial return to the state” was a principal objective of the disposition, and dismissed the idea that the communities would be allowed to acquire any of the property since they would have to compete with private developers who were better funded. “It is our goal to get to the broader market because of our preconceived notion of what the towns can afford”, she explained. The towns were told that they could make suggestions, but they didn’t have much time – the state intended to issue a request for proposals to developers in only six months.

The affected communities did not respond warmly to the state’s attempt to marginalize them. They were already suffering from overdevelopment along roadways around the hospital, and were struggling to with an overpriced real estate market that had sent housing prices spiraling beyond affordability. We’ve provided services to the state hospital for decades while foregoing property taxes on the state-owned land, they noted. And we will be permanently affected by the reuse. So why shouldn’t the reuse planning ask what’s best for the host communities rather than what some outside corporation wants?

Fortunately, the Chapter 7 disposition process gave the communities an effective safeguard against state-promoted schemes that were harmful. Any transfer of the property required specific legislation to be passed, and this legislation was by tradition written by the local legislators. Because legislators are directly accountable to their constituents, any transfer legislation needed to win a certain level of support from the communities before it was viable. To take a balanced look at reuse options and obtain a clear and well-reasoned consensus to guide transfer legislation, a Tri-Community Task Force was formed. It consisted of citizens appointed by the towns of Belmont, Lexington, and Waltham.

Meeting over the course of a couple of years, the Task Force reviewed planning documents, won grants for the study of traffic, sewer and infrastructure status, asked questions of state agencies, and studied environmental issues. They obtained an agreement with the state that the total traffic load generated by the reuse of the property should be no more than the peak load produced by the former hospital. Working with neighborhood residents and interest groups, they hammered out a Reuse Plan that met key public interest objectives for the property. This plan was approved by the selectmen of Lexington and Belmont and the city council of Waltham.

With the Reuse Plan as a statement of community consensus, legislators wrote transfer legislation allowing the property to be divided and transferred. The final result was:

• A new 254-acre public reservation
• Redevelopment of housing on 35 acres, including reuse of several of the former hospital buildings. This eventually let to construction of 360 units of badly needed rental housing.
• Agreement that 25% of any housing constructed would be affordable and that 10% would be set aside for clients of the Department of Mental Health.
• An option for development of a 9-hole municipal golf course on 54 acres of unforested hospital grounds (with the land being used for conservation if the golf course were not developed).

Chapter 7 Safeguards Under Attack

The Chapter 7 process was an outgrowth of the 1970’s Ward Commission that had found evidence of improper dealings between legislators and private parties seeking to get their hands on public lands. Chapter 7 was written to ensure that backroom deals did not deprive the public of the benefit of the land that they owned.

In recent years real estate interests, with the help of their friends on Beacon Hill, launched a campaign to demonize Chapter 7 as “too slow” and to substitute an expedited disposition process that places more control in the hands of unaccountable fiscal bureaucracies. One such measure was the notorious “fast track auction law” passed secretly as an outside section of the 2003 budget. It allowed state bureaucrats to bring state property to the auction block with only 30 days notice, without considering community suggestions for reuse of land. However, by the time it was up for reauthorization in 2005, the complaints of grassroots community groups had made it so controversial that legislators shied away from renewing it.

As a substitute for the loss of the fast-track auction law, the Romney Adminstration began to promote a new process H4728 (“Jones-Stanley”). Community groups rallied opposition to this measure, pointing out that it disempowered communities and placed all the key decisions in the hands of unaccountable state bureaucrats. As evidence of the anti-community motivations of the bill, they noted a provision that would have allowed the quasi-public MassDevelopment agency to snatch property for privatization projects without giving local communities any say in the matter. The citizens groups scored several victories in having some of the objectionable parts of Jones-Stanley deleted.

After several failed attempts, the House leadership managed to ram Jones-Stanley through by keeping the text secret until just before it came up for a vote. The final version of Jones-Stanley still represented a significant rollback of the public’s right to guide land reuse. It did not provide for local reuse committees. It also removed local accountability for transfer legislation that would reflect a specific reuse plan (allowing the Legislature to cast only an early vote on whether the property should be declared surplus at all).

The Senate meanwhile, rejected Jones-Stanley as a basis for reform and wrote its own version of a surplus lands legislation. The Senate version was much more friendly to communities, and limiting its ability to bypass Chapter 7. In conference committee, neither the House or Senate could agree to the other’s provisions, so the bill failed. Today, the safeguards of Chapter 7 remain in full force.

Does this mean that properties are still being disposed of using the proven Chapter 7 process used at Met State Hospital? Unfortunately, not. The Romney Administration has refused to work with local reuse committees and has not disposed of a single parcel since the fast track auction law was allowed to die. Predictably, the enemies of Chapter 7 have blamed the lack of movement on the supposed evils of Chapter 7 rather than their own lack of initiative.

Groups opposing Jones-Stanley note that delays in processing of state property has usually been the fault of the state, which sometimes takes decades to decide that a property will be declared surplus. The part of the current process that Jones-Stanley wants to eliminate to speed things up is that which provides for local public participation.

The experience at Met State showed that even in a complex disposition, where three different municipalities had to come to agreement on an extensive parcel with major impacts, the planning by the public’s reuse committee took less than two years. And it resulted in a much better plan for the public than the one the state intended to pursue on its original expedited schedule. This would suggest that a few months spent to allow public involvement and careful planning produces real and substantial benefits for the public. An “expedited” process that has no provision for meaningful public guidance is an open invitation to let backroom deals displace the democratic processes that protect the public interest in state-owned lands.

While Chapter 7 remains in place for the moment, legislators in the House who are friendly to developer interests have not abandoned their efforts to undermine the law. Given the secrecy surrounding Beacon Hill dealings, a new attack on Chapter 7 could emerge unexpectedly at any moment. Surplus lands are likely to be a continuing part of the battle between communities and those seeking to exploit public properties for their own profit.


For more information on the Beaver Brook North Reservation see:

Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation
hMassachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation

Waltham Land Trust

For updates on laws affecting surplus lands, see:

Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities


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