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Land issue matter of balance:
Some question process, underline need for local community oversight
Fast-track Permitting to Deliver Free land, infrastructure, and Tax breaks

By Andrew J. Manuse / Daily News Staff – Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Community activists and developers are watching the State House as lawmakers consider how to distribute surplus land owned by the state to foster business growth.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi proposed leasing surplus state land to businesses that would add 100 news jobs and sustain 5 percent growth for five years, while they are excused from state excise taxes.

The surplus land would be pre-permitted for research facilities and other businesses without needless delay and red tape, DiMasi said during a speech at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

“This is the beginning of a process, a first step in what will culminate in a larger economic development package,” DiMasi’s spokeswoman, Kimberly Haberlin, said yesterday. “We will be looking to hear from all interested parties, not only on the surplus property proposal but also on economic development in general.”

Jill Stein, president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities in Lexington, is one of these interested parties.

Stein is concerned that local communities would lose control over what happens to the parcels of land near them. She also worried that other issues, such as affordable housing and open space, would be ignored in favor of corporate handouts.

Stein said state law used to require a local legislator to sign a bill to sell surplus state land, which would provide a measure of accountability. That process, according to Felix Browne, a spokesman for the governor, could have kept land tied up in negotiations and bureaucratic “red tape” for up to 10 years.

A few weeks before DiMasi announced his proposal, the governor was pushing for the extension to a more recent law that temporarily replaced the one requiring legislative approval.

That law streamlined the process and allowed the state Division of Capital Asset Management, which owns the surplus land, to auction it off with little to no oversight from local communities, Stein said.

“There is incredible concern and frustration with this process,” said Stein. “It is a real loss of irreplaceable public resources that should be used in a way that really benefits people.”

Yesterday, Browne said the governor will try to balance the need for an efficient system with the needs of local communities in his economic stimulus plan, which he filed at the beginning of the month.

“We remain committed to communicating with members of the legislature and with local officials to make sure we update the antiquated system of surplus land sales,” said Browne. “Everyone agrees that in the past the (surplus land-sale) process was inefficient and overly bureaucratic, and nobody advocates a return to the old system.”

Browne said the governor was open to reviewing DiMasi’s plan to reform the system.

DiMasi will go on a “listening tour” to hear from all sides on this story, Haberlin stressed. He’ll be in Worcester on April 14 and in Boston on May 12, she said.

“We’ll see how this takes shape,” said Stein. “At least we’re hearing about it. But so far what we’re hearing reflects enormous influence by the Beacon Hill power brokers.”

The state currently has about 2,200 acres of surplus land under the care of the Division of Capital Asset Management, according to Kevin Flanigan, a deputy commissioner at the division. Surplus land is not open space or parkland and already has structures on it in most cases, Flanigan said. Not all acreage is
available for sale or lease either, he added.

The state would identify what parts of this land would be available for economic development under DiMasi’s plan, as well as under the plan proposed by the governor.

Both the governor and DiMasi have stressed they will take local concerns into consideration before any proposal becomes law.

“I really congratulate the speaker and the governor for their innovative economic development approaches in recognizing the critical importance that permitting plays in the economic development process,” said Lynn Sand, chief executive of 495/MetroWest Corridor Partnership Inc., a Westborough organization committed to commercial development in MetroWest and some outlying areas. But, “this cannot be done in a silo. Massachusetts prides itself on local governance. Any permitting process really needs to be done in conjunction with
municipalities.”

“I don’t hear anything about housing being included in this,” Sand continued. “If we create the jobs but don’t have the folks to fill the jobs because they can’t afford to live here, we have an issue. I would caution that we be aware of that.”

(Andrew J. Manuse can be reached at [email protected])

  

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