July 3, 2005
Boston Globe – West Weekly
Waltham lauds end of 'fast-track’ land sales
By Stephanie V. Siek, Globe Staff
Grass-roots groups and community organizations from Waltham are applauding the defeat of a controversial law that allowed the state to auction off public lands without input from the local community.
People from Waltham played a key role in making sure the law lapsed with the end of the budget year Thursday, according to Jill Stein, president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities. The Lexington-based coalition fosters connections among local public interest groups on issues such as healthcare, education, and the environment.
With the expiration of the fast-track auction process, known as Outside Section 548, the sale of state land once again requires legislative approval, with municipalities given the right to buy land for public use before it is offered to private buyers. Even if a community opts not to purchase the land, it still would have a say over how it is developed.
Opponents of the fast-track provision maintained that it left municipalities too little time to raise money to purchase land, and ignored local concerns by selling to the highest bidder. Supporters said it gave the state a quick way to raise revenue, avoiding an approval process that could take years.
”It’s a statewide issue, but one that’s affected Waltham early and hard,” Stein said.
Several state-owned properties lie within Waltham’s borders, including land that was formerly part of the Middlesex County and Metropolitan State hospitals, the University of Massachusetts field station, unused land at the Fernald Development Center campus, and the former Gaebler Children’s Center.
An undeveloped parcel straddling the Waltham-Lexington line on the site of the former Middlesex County Hospital has been a particular source of controversy. The Division of Capital Asset Management, which is charged with designating state land to be sold, originally planned to auction off the 55 acres, known as Lot 1.
Waltham has expressed an interest in purchasing the land and using it for open space.
Marc Rudnick, a founding member of the Waltham Land Trust, said that the group’s struggle for a say in Lot 1’s fate emboldened it to tackle the broader fight to give Outside Section 548 ‘'a decent burial.”
”One of the interesting things about Massachusetts is that Massachusetts has really clung to the notion that local communities are where the real experience of democratic society exists,” said Rudnick. ”The idea of a town controlling its own destiny is something that is sort of sacrosanct in Massachusetts.”
The land trust joined with others around the state to lobby legislators and other elected officials to oppose Outside Section 548 and other land-disposition processes that do not provide for local input. Rudnick said that many conservation groups and even some legislators were unaware of the law.
The Waltham City Council unanimously passed a resolution in May that asked legislators to oppose any efforts to sell land that circumvented the legislative process.
Councilors George Darcy III and Stephen Rourke, who sponsored that resolution, also encourage other local elected officials to enlist their state legislators in the cause.
”We also asked them to consider two items: that towns and cities be given the right to form a reuse committee regardless of the size of the parcel. The other one was to pose a question — should the state make communities raise taxes to purchase public land that’s already public? In our community, that didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Darcy.
Waltham’s chapter of the League of Women Voters joined the fray as well. In opposing the fast-track auction process, it cited the national organization’s stance that land should be treated not as a commodity but as a finite resource that requires stewardship.
The chapter advocates a process for selling land that combines state guidelines with ‘'expertise on the local level . . . so we fulfill obligations to the future and to our children,” said its president, Susan Gitelle Baron.<br />
Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at [email protected]<br />
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.</p></td>
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