Press release for immediate release
July 20, 2005
GROUP DEPLORES UNDEMOCRATIC “COVERT ACTION” BY HOUSE ON SURPLUS LANDS.
SAYS COMMUNITIES WOULD BE STRIPPED OF RIGHTS IN FINAL, UNSCRUTINISED DAYS OF SESSION.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities (MCHC) protested the announcement today of a new surplus land bill to be released and voted on in the House on Thursday. Less than 48 hours before the vote, legislators were keeping secret the text of the bill that is described as making major changes in the current process for disposition of state surplus land. According to Jill Stein, president of MCHC, “The future of surplus public lands deserves an open public process, not a secret surprise in the final days of the summer session when the public is looking the other way.
This latest in a series of attempts to pass unscrutinized surplus land laws suggests that once again, the proponents of this bill have something to hide from the public.“
A coalition of citizen groups that MCHC helped organize has repeatedly called for a more open public process in response to a series of “covert” proposals beginning with the “fast-track auction law” that was enacted as an outside section of the 2003 budget. According to Stein, “This undemocratic process gave us an undemocratic law, stripping communities of their long-standing right to plan the reuse of surplus lands within their borders. Laws that take away the community’s right to plan their future deserve a full public hearing. Yet the bill to be presented on Thursday has not even seen the light of day.” Though this bill is said to represent a compromise between three existing proposals, Stein pointed out that two of those three proposals have not yet had a hearing either, since their text was not publicly available at the time of a hearing held in May.
Stein noted “As a basic principle of democracy, the legislature must not quietly slip into law measures that take our control of our future away from us. It is an affront to the residents and municipal officials who’ve been struggling for years to improve affordable housing, open space protection, and transportation planning in their communities. They have been locked out of the legislative process – not even given a chance to testify. And these bills lock them out of decision-making in their own communities.”
The bills on which the current “compromise” measure is based put critical land use decisions in the hands of state and regional agencies and committees that have not been part of local planning and are not accountable to communities who must live with the agencies’ decisions.
Stein added, “While the bills incorporate the language of smart growth, real smart growth must be informed by in depth knowledge of the community. It’s not achieved through cookie-cutter formulas imposed by Beacon Hill. Under these bills, community officials and residents are confined to being supplicants at hearings. Even the bill devised by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), doesn’t even give communities a seat at the table for properties less than 25 acres in size. And for large properties, the communities have only a minority voice in a purely advisory committee. Compromising between such extreme bills is no compromise at all.”
Sponsors have claimed that the bills give communities greater opportunity to acquire surplus properties through the right of first refusal. But according to John Andrews, policy director for MCHC, “The right of first refusal” provision in these bills is not going to help communities in any meaningful way. Cash-strapped municipalities simply can’t come up with the money needed to purchase land at real estate developer prices. If the legislature wants to help communities acquire property for public purposes, they would simply allow land to be transferred from the state to the municipality. Communities should not have to raise property taxes to save parcels already in the public domain for a public use – like affordable housing or open space protection.”
Stein said that the citizen’s groups would continue to press for a “community-based smart growth” approach to land disposition. She said this would give local planners a meaningful role in the disposition process.