Thursday, September 22, 2005 Lexington Minuteman
Keep community process in place for surplus lands
By William J. 'Bud’ Frawley
Last year saw the fulfillment of the three-town effort that led to the disposition of the Metropolitan State Hospital property, yielding more than 250 acres of open space and the present redevelopment of the Lexington portion into apartments, including almost 100 units of affordable housing.
Starting in 1989, local committees polled citizens and crafted their input into a formal re-use plan, whose specifics became law by vote of the Legislature in 1994. Later, the state published a request for proposals based on the re-use plan. From these proposals, the selectmen named a preferred developer.
During the re-zoning process, in response to concerns of South Lexington residents, the developer scaled down its project by 10 percent.
Finally, Town Meeting approved the final form of the requested zoning changes, and the state sold the Lexington portion of the original site to the developer.
It was a protracted, rough-and-tumble struggle to find consensus, but it worked! Even those of us who had complaints about the final outcome admit that what went on was open, above-board and locally-based.
Now the deliberate, community-based process by which that decision was made may be replaced by a law that would transfer authority from the communities affected by the disposition of state surplus lands to a handful of gubernatorial appointees. For that and other reasons cited below, I oppose the Jones-Stanley bill (H4278).
The main players in the proposed bill are: the Commissioner of the Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM); a new 11-person Surplus Land Coordinating Committee, eight of whose members are appointed by the governor; and the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (MassDevelopment), a quasi-public agency which is the commonwealth’s primary source of public financing for economic development projects.
Here are some of the key provisions of H4278 to which I object. (1) The commissioner has the sole authority to decide that a given property is to be declared surplus even if some state agency claims it has a present or foreseeable need for that property. (2) After such a decision is made, MassDevelopment has 180 days to decide if it wants to buy the property or lease it (for up to 99 years). In a total time period of nine months or less, MassDevelopment can acquire state-owned property without any effective outside supervision or intervention. (3) Development by MassDevelopment will be expedited by an undefined “coordinated one-stop” permitting program for “businesses, institutions, and private parties”. (4) Lessees who create 100 or more new jobs on the leased property are forgiven payment in lieu of taxes to the local community for five years. (5) Only after MassDevelopment declines to buy or lease a given property is that property officially “declared surplus” and the host community is given the chance to buy (but not lease) it within 180 days at 85 percent of best-use market value.
To me, this is economic development running rampant over other legitimate concerns.
It is claimed that surplus property exceeding 25 acres is protected because its disposition requires legislative action. In fact, the bill reads: “If the general court fails to take action on the committee’s recommendation within 75 days of receipt, the general court shall be deemed to have approved said recommendations.” Given the time frame typical in the Legislature, this provision is no protection at all.
Finally, and ironically, H4278 is not as bad for Lexington as it is for Massachusetts, because it includes a special provision (Section 16) which protects state-owned parcels that straddle the Waltham-Lexington border from disposition except by passage of specific laws enacted by two-thirds votes in both the Senate and the House. Thus, by a twist of legislative logic, the bill is “good” for our town precisely because part of Lexington is exempted from it.
State-owned property belongs to all of us. It is part of our heritage. How it is used in the future will be part of what we pass on to the next generations, whether that be as housing, open space, community use, economic development, or protected farmland. When we decide what to do next with our property, we should rely on a deliberate, open process, based on the needs of the affected communities and affirmed by legislative approval of detailed re-use plans.
We citizens may require the assistance of state departments and may ask for the advice of quasi-public agencies, but we must not turn over to them the process and the decision-making for the future of our State-owned lands. I urge you to read the bill at www.mass.gov/legis/bills/house/ht04/ht04278.htm