RESTORING COMMUNITY RIGHTS TO SURPLUS LAND:
A COMMUNITY-BASED, SMART GROWTH PLAN
By Jill Stein, President, Mass. Coalition for Healthy Communities – 4/25/05
Two unscrutinized bills that would reduce Waltham’s control over its own future are coming up for a vote in the state Legislature. Both would extend the problematic policies of the state’s current fast-track auction law by disempowering local communities and placing state-level bureaucrats and committees in charge of surplus land disposition. These bills also open the door to the issuance of 99-year leases through a process that bypasses community control. Fortunately, there is a third “community-based smart growth” plan recently offered by the local activists who have been working to repeal the fast-track auction law. This plan empowers communities to guide the use of public lands within their borders, and it incorporates the local land use expertise that is essential for effective smart growth. It needs to be heard before locking in new rules for surplusing.
The two Beacon Hill-oriented plans consist mostly of ideas put forward by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and Governor Romney’s Administration. These proposals fail to address major problems underlying the fast-track auction law. The key decisions would still be made by state and regional entities that are neither transparent nor accountable, that lack the in-depth local knowledge essential for truly “smart” growth and that are vulnerable to influence by the Beacon Hill developer lobby. Even the MAPC proposal – which incorporates commendable smart growth language – fails to give affected communities any seat at the table for properties less than 25 acres. And even for larger parcels, the community has only a minority voice in a merely advisory committee.
In contrast to the Beacon Hill-oriented bills, the community-based smart growth plan empowers communities to be the key decision-makers in their own future – while ensuring that progress is made toward statewide guidelines for affordable housing and open space protection. And it calls for state government to respect local government’s role in community planning by upholding pre-existing local plans and allowing the no-cost transfer of surplus property from the state to the municipality if there is a public interest use at the local level. This provision recognizes the necessity for cooperation between state and local government in meeting critical public needs.
Proponents of the Beacon Hill plans say legislators must act quickly to pass new rules before the current law sunsets in June. But this is a manufactured emergency. After June, land disposition will revert to the former Chapter 7 rules requiring transfer legislation for each parcel. This is the very process that was used successfully for the Met State Hospital property. While this system should be improved upon, it provides much needed transparency and accountability that deter insider deals which have long plagued Commonwealth land dispositions. It provides a good holding pattern while effective legislation can be debated and developed.
The powerful real estate developer lobby will no doubt welcome legislation that disarms communities and empowers unaccountable state agencies and committees within the lobbyists’ sphere of influence. But residents would do well to contact their legislators and call for a broader, public debate that considers the merits of community-based planning. The people in the communities who will live with the surplusing decisions deserve to be heard before the Legislature quietly slips measures into law that take our control of our future away from us. To learn more about the community-based smart growth proposal that can restore community rights, see www.masschc.org