May 12, 2005
COMMITTEE SEEKS TO CONTINUE EXPEDITED SALES OF STATE LANDS.
BUT CITIZENS SAY THIS DISEMPOWERS COMMUNITIES.
by John Andrews
A three-hour hearing of the Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets was held on May 11. Over 20 bills were listed as being addressed. The text for several of the bills were not yet posted on the Legislative website at the time of the hearing. The more significant bills addressed state laws governing the disposal of surplus properties.
ROMNEY ADMINISTRATION BACKS JONES-STANLEY BILL
In a significant development, DCAM Commissioner David Perini threw Romney Administration support behind a bill to extend an expedited process for disposal of state surplus land. The bill, whose chief sponsors are House Republican leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) and Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham) would create an expedited process that would be in effect at least until 2010. “I urge the committee to support the Jones/Stanley bill”, Perini told the panel.
Testifying in favor of the bill (H.3840) , Rep. Stanley stated that it would be an improvement over Outside Section 548 currently in effect. He noted that it would give communities “the earliest notice ever” and allow communities the right to purchase surplus land at 85% of the fair market value. Stanley read a list of legislators and organizations that he said had been consulted in putting together the bill. He noted that the bill would allow up to a year for the disposition to be completed.
Because the Jones/Stanley bill now has the backing of both the Romney Administration and of a number of Democratic legislators it is viewed as the most likely vehicle for continuing the expedited sale of state surplus properties. A competing proposal offered by Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) is likely to be merged with the Jones/Stanley bill before it is offered for a vote on the floor.
COMMUNITY ADVOCATES ASK TO BE HEARD
Subsequent testimony revealed that the Jones/Stanley legislation might be unacceptable to some advocates for housing, open space, and community planning rights. Speakers noted that Jones/Stanley gives no rights to communities other than to be notified, to submit comments to state panels, and to purchase properties. This was viewed as falling far short of respecting the importance of community planning.
Marc Rudnick, a community housing advocate from Waltham, pleaded with the committee to “Oppose quick fix alternatives regardless of their minor improvements if they keep communities in a disempowered position.”
Rudnick dismissed the idea that bypassing community planning to sell land was a good way to raise money for housing programs: “For community housing groups, the opportunity to participate in planning for land use is much more relevant than the opportunity to compete for some state funding that may or may not come in a later year.”
Jill Stein, testifying for a coalition of 25 community groups that have been seeking the repeal of the fast-tracking process noted that “These bills add layers of process, but at the end of the day communities are disempowered.” Stein said “There have been comments that we are ready to wrap this up. But this hearing should be the beginning of a dialogue with the communities, not the end of it. There are many good and valid ideas for improving this process that we have heard about in testimony today – and they have not yet been reflected in the legislation. We need to take this hearing to other parts of the state and let the affected communities help shape the legislation that impacts them so profoundly.”
Stein left Committee members with a proposal for a “community-based smart growth” approach that would give local planning authorities (such as planning boards and conservation commissions) a central decision-making role in guiding reuse of surplused properties.
REVENUE IS PRIORITY FOR COMMITTEE
Committee Chair Sen. Mark Montigny rejected calls for simply repealing the fast-tracking authority, noting that the revenues being produced by sales of public land were helping balance the budget. He chided supporters of repeal with the comment that “The two chairs of Ways and Means are looking at this revenue and counting on the $25 million. To repeal it is equivalent to proposing a $25 million new program, and we can’t do that.”
But some of those present questioned whether viewing land strictly in terms of budget fixes was wise. Senator Diane Wilkerson offered that “Perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy to dispose of state assets.”
THE RUSH TO LEGISLATE
Sen. Montigny and advocates of new legislation repeatedly stressed that “We can’t go back to Chapter 7” because it did not produce sufficient revenues. The reversion back to Chapter 7, even temporarily, was portrayed as a looming disaster. Nevertheless, several representatives proudly noted that they had passed legislation to exempt parcels in their district from the fast-tracking process and form reuse committees under the Chapter 7 process.
Lexington Selectwoman Jeanne Krieger asked the Committee to trust communities to play a greater role in the process. She cited the disposition of the Metropolitan State Hospital property which has been redeveloped to provide housing and open space under a plan forged by a community-based reuse panel. “If communities are allowed to be involved, they will, in fact, do the right thing” she asserted.
Sen. Diane Wilkerson suggested that rushing the disposition process after land was declared surplus might not be the most appropriate solution. She noted that the long delays that were being cited as a justification for fast-tracking has mostly occurred prior to any decision to begin the surplusing process: “We don’t have a trigger that starts the process. It doesn’t take 15 to 20 years once we start the process. Boston State Hospital was vacant with nothing happening for a longer time than we’ve been in disposition. It wasn’t until 1994 that we even authorized that it be disposed of. Perhaps we need a triggering process.”
Sen. Montigny appeared hostile to any suggestion that reforms based on smart growth principles should be allowed to slow the revenue stream produced by sales of state properties. His assertion that the revenues were already built into the current Ways and Means budget suggests that the Committee will push for quick action to continue some form of fast-tracking, probably using the Jones/Stanley bill as the vehicle. But community advocates did not seem inclined to surrender community planning rights in pursuit of a short-term fiscal objective. Despite the Committee’s willingness to dismiss them, they said that their efforts were resulting in growing support outside Beacon Hill for a more community-oriented approach to surplus land disposition.