From the Berkshire Eagle, July 1, 2005
SALES OF SURPLUS LAND REVERT TO OLD METHOD
By Julie Mehegan, Eagle Boston Bureau
BOSTON — The agency that controls state-owned property has to once again begin asking the Legislature for permission every time it wants to sell off a piece of land, thanks to intense lobbying by open space activists, municipal officials, and some lawmakers.
A 2003 law that allowed the state to fast-track the sale of surplus land — and brought in millions of dollars — was set to expire (on June 30th). The Senate approved an extension of the law in its version of the budget, but it was left out of the final spending plan.
No action was expected by the Legislature yesterday, meaning the so-called “expedited auction” bill will be allowed to lapse. Opponents consider that a win. “It’s really a huge victory for grass-roots democracy,” said Jill Stein, chairman of Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities and a one-time Green Party candidate for governor.
As lawmakers and the Romney administration considered an extension of the fast-track auction law, Stein began mobilizing opponents, arguing the new system leaves city and town officials out of key decisions over the future use of state land.
Some lawmakers also opposed the new system, because it stripped them of the power to reject a potential sale. But many on Beacon Hill remain dissatisfied with the old system of disposing of state-owned land, which requires separate legislation for every transaction and is considered by critics to be inefficient and unwieldy. There are several bills pending in the Legislature that would reform surplus land sales, and local lawmakers say they expect a debate in the coming months.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how the House and Senate interact, and I’m hoping to help broker a compromise,” said Rep. James Eldridge, D-Acton, a co-sponsor of one of the pending bills.
There are approximately 2,200 acres of surplus state-owned land that contain about 300 buildings, according to the state Division of Capital Asset Management. Officials estimate that by June 30, the fast-track auction program will have generated nearly $38 million in its two years. For the three-year period prior to the change, the sale of state property averaged less than $2 million a year.
The Romney administration supported the fast-track auction legislation, but is now supporting changes that would give local cities and towns more input into the sale of state land, giving them the right of first refusal to buy the land, for example, or to transfer that right to a nonprofit.
A spokesman for Gov. Mitt Romney said the governor remains committed to reforming the “cumbersome” surplus land sale process. “He will continue to argue for a policy that respects local needs and results in the best possible use of the property,” said spokesman Felix Browne.
Not everyone is sad to see the old system return. Rep. James Miceli, D-Wilmington, said blame for past delays in selling state land should rest with DCAM, not the Legislature. “I want to go back to the old way, and keep it the old way,” Miceli said.