Editorial – The Boston Globe, Editorial – The Bost 2006-03-30
March 30, 2006
ON THE WATERFRONT
The Boston Globe
[The following editorial concerns a 2006 attempt by real estate lobbyists to weaken the Public Waterfront Act by eliminating the right of citizen appeal. The measure was part of the expedited permitting legislation. It was removed after a number of public interests groups protested. Note that the Globe concluded that arguments put forth by David Belgelfer, chief executive of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, were misleading. Belgelfer’s organization has filed 8 bills in the 2007 Legislative session. – Ed.]
EVERYONE IN MASSACHUSETTS, whether rich or penniless, owns a stake in waterfront property thanks to Colonial-era laws that place tidelands in the public trust. But this right is now under attack by proposed legislation that seeks to limit the ability of Massachusetts residents to challenge the state licenses that developers need to build along the state’s waterways.
Developers complain loudly and often that cumbersome environmental permitting processes hinder their ability to build the amount of housing and commercial property needed for healthy growth. After going through rounds of environmental reviews and public hearings, they argue, the final insult comes when groups of 10 citizens can appeal developers’ licenses to the state Department of Environmental Protection or bring suit in Superior Court. Trade groups are pushing a bill that would largely eliminate that option on the waterfront.
Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts General Laws requires that the state preserve and protect the tidelands for public and maritime uses. The law still allows plenty of opportunity for waterfront development, but not for total privatization. Massachusetts residents have Chapter 91 to thank for the state’s harborwalks, waterfront parks, and other amenities. And one reason that developers are quick to come to the table with such public benefits is their knowledge that 10 riled-up taxpayers can block, or at least slow down, their projects by invoking Chapter 91.
The bill’s backers, including David Begelfer, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, claim that 10-taxpayer groups are running amok. But statistics suggest otherwise. In the past two years, 22 appeals of Chapter 91 waterway licenses have been filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection, and only four of those were bought by taxpayer groups. Developers’ notions that appeals linger for years and force them to miss construction cycles are also misleading, at least in recent years. State environmental officials now prescreen all appeals carefully to weed out frivolous ones. Since 2004, nearly two-thirds of all appeals have been resolved within 180 days, triple the rate before 2004.
Portions of the proposed bill would help to streamline the permitting process for developers both inland and on the coast. Communities should be required to act on building permits in timely fashion, and the state would benefit from the addition of regional permitting specialists. But all of this can be accomplished without jeopardizing public access to the waterfront. Developers need to understand local conditions. In Massachusetts, that means public interest, not profit, takes priority on filled tidelands .