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Planning Group Finds Flaws in Fast-track Auctions
But proposed new legislation still disempowers communities

By MCHC – Friday, April 8th, 2005

A report recently issued by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) provides support for the concerns expressed by citizen’s groups pressing since last October for repeal of the state’s fast-track auction law for disposal of surplus lands. However, according to spokespersons for the repeal groups, the legislation proposed by MAPC to replace the fast-track auction law is not an acceptable substitute since it fails to address the need to empower local communities to guide their own future.

John Andrews, policy analyst for the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, said that the MAPC study provided “a confirmation that there are serious flaws in the fast-track auction law”. He commended the MAPC plan as an important step in opening the dialogue on a better planning process for land disposition. But he cautioned that as currently written, the MAPC alternative would continue the disempowerment of local citizens whose lives will be affected by disposition decisions. According to Andrews “Local selectmen, planning boards, housing authorities, and conservation commissions have longstanding experience with rezonings, permitting, and traffic demand management initiatives for properties surrounding the site being surplused. And the most impacted stakeholders in the entire process are the local residents who will live with the consequences of the reuse. These local stakeholders should be key decision-makers. Communities should not be reduced to minority players with only advisory roles.”

Under the terms of the MAPC proposal, decisions regarding properties smaller than 2 acres would continue to be made by the Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), a state property management agency that has a track record of disregard for community economic, housing, environmental, transportation and smart growth concerns. For properties between 2 and 25 acres in size, (or valued at greater than $1million), the MAPC plan provides for decisions on surplusing to be made by a “balanced board” – whose composition is notably tilted away from the affected community. The board would be composed of multiple state and regional agencies and organizations: DCAM, the Office of Commonwealth Development, the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, the regional planning authority (such as MAPC) and the Mass. Municipal Association (MMA). According to Andrews, appointments by the MMA or MAPC are accountable to their agencies, not to the local community.

Reuse decisions regarding properties larger than 25 acres would be made by an eight-person Reuse Committee, including three mayoral (or “municipal CEO”) appointments who would represent the community. Andrews noted that such a committee would still be dominated by state and regional agencies, and here too, the communities would be denied a leading roll in deciding their own future. Local planning authorities would have no clear role in the process, and the lack of funding for the reuse would often preclude options other than sale to the highest bidder.

MCHC President Jill Stein expressed support for several of the improvements recommended in the MAPC report, including coordination among state agencies, professional land use evaluation, annual report on properties from DCAM, better notification of stakeholders, right of first refusal for municipalities, and assignability of the right of first approval. But Stein commented that “Empowerment of local communities has to involve real decision-making authority, not just the ability to be a supplicant at a hearing.” She noted that “We have local structures like the Community Preservation Act that are ideally suited for guiding the reuse process. We should be able to turn the disposition process over to such established mechanisms rather than putting it in the hands of a new committee dominated by state agencies lacking intimate knowledge of – and accountability to – the community.”

According to Stein the recommendation to restore the right of first refusal to purchase surplus property is needed, but is not meaningful in the current fiscal environment. Stein noted that with cuts in state support for land acquisition, and budget stress caused by state cuts in local aid, “the right of first refusal usually amounts to little more than the right to say: “No thank you, we can’t afford it.” Stein supports giving communities the ability to transfer their right of first refusal to a designated non-profit organization, but noted that such non-profits are also strapped for cash and have not demonstrated an ability to be major players in community land acquisition.

Andrews suggested that a fundamental change is needed in the way state government treats municipalities. “As citizens, we have the right to expect all levels of government to work together to serve our best interests. One level of government should not be allowed to extort money from another. If a local government has a need for a property in order to serve a critical public purpose, then the land should be transferred to them with minimal or no charge – as it would be to a state-level agency that needed property. State agencies should not force communities with urgent property needs to raise their property taxes in order to provide a payoff to DCAM.”

Andrews took issue with MAPC’s assertion that their legislation should be rushed into law to prevent reversion to the legislative process that existed before fast-tracking (due to sunset in June of this year). He noted that “MAPC argues that their bill will speed up the surplusing process. But speed is not the overriding consideration when you are making decisions with permanent impacts on a community. Experience shows that when we provide adequate time for community organizing, study, and planning, we get better decisions in the end. Any legislation that sacrifices this in exchange for speed will work against transparency, accountability, good planning and smart growth.”

The Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities recently held a workshop to obtain recommendations from citizen’s working on affordable housing, greenspace protection, and agricultural preservation. The results are being assembled into a set of guidelines for empowering communities to be leading decision-makers over lands within their borders, while assuring consistency with state and regional goals including affordable housing and open space preservation. Andrews said that these guidelines will be forwarded to MAPC and legislators in hopes that they will be reflected in any future legislative proposals.

Stein emphasized that public input to legislators is needed to make sure that any new legislation does not perpetuate the flaws of the current fast-tracking law. “When we began the fight to repeal the fast-track auction law, the Beacon Hill insiders told us it couldn’t be stopped. We proved them wrong. Now we have to make sure that any new legislation does not continue the disempowerment of communities. Before fast-tracking we had a process that provided for accountability, and usually worked well. Any proposal for replacing it has to preserve accountability and provide for meaningful guidance by local communities. In so doing, we can go beyond simply repealing the fast-track auction law. We can move toward a process that makes local communities true partners in the just and sustainable use of public lands.”


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