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Press release for immediate release
July 22, 2005
GRASSROOTS BACKLASH STOPS SURPLUS LANDS BILL
SURPRISE STRATEGY THWARTED BY RAPID MOBILIZATION

The Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities (MCHC), which helped galvanize statewide opposition to the fast-track auctions of surplus state land, today celebrated another victory as support for the new “summer surprise” surplus lands bill unraveled just hours before a scheduled vote yesterday in the House of Representatives. Jill Stein, president of MCHC observed, “Grass roots democracy and community rights have prevailed. Community advocates and municipal officials have prevented an unscrutinized bill from sneaking into law that disempowers communities and privatizes surplus state land.”

For three days before the vote, MCHC activated a statewide network of community activists who called and emailed representatives and municipal officials asking that proposed bills be withdrawn and that hearings be held in communities statewide to forge a fairer and more balanced piece of legislation. As legislators began to respond, it became clear that serious questions would have to be resolved before the House could go forward with the bill.

Bills filed earlier in the session had already drawn fire from community advocates for provisions that allowed land sales to bypass local authority. One provision, mischaracterized as providing “Legislative review,” allowed proposals filed by the Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) for parcels larger than 25 acres to automatically become law – barring the unusual exercise of a legislative veto within a 75 day window.

Major changes in the proposed legislation were unveiled barely 24 hours before a scheduled Thursday vote. In addition to the provisions found objectionable earlier, new ones had been inserted further favoring privatization over municipal public interest uses of surplus property. Especially of concern, the new bill preempts the municipal right of first refusal and gives it to the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency. Through this quasi-public state agency, corporations could be offered long-term leases on state surplus lands, including the right to construct office buildings or research and manufacturing facilities on state property to within 50 feet of residential areas. Western Massachusetts MCHC activist Nat Fortune commented “This provision allows corporations to occupy public lands without having to buy them, and to bypass much local zoning. This also subsidizes for-profit development at public expense, even as it robs cash-strapped municipalities of opportunities for community-driven affordable housing and economic development.”

Earlier this year, the 30 community groups had joined together to seek the repeal of what they called the “fast track auction law”. This law lapsed on June 30 after community opposition helped block reauthorization of the measure through the FY06 budget. Under the current “Chapter 7” process, the requirement for specific transfer legislation, traditionally sponsored by a local representative, gives communities leverage over the sale and future use of surplus property. While the community groups support improving Chapter 7, they consider the currently proposed legislation to be a step backwards.

Jill Stein summed up the groups’ concerns saying “Our scarce public land resources should be used wisely to make our communities more just and sustainable. A community’s ability to plan a livable future should be strengthened by new surplusing legislation, not eliminated. A lot is at stake for the affected communities, and they need to have a role in shaping any new rules for land reuse.”

  

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