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November 19, 2005
LAND PRIVATIZATION BILL PASSES HOUSE, STALLS IN SENATE.
by John Andrews, MCHC

On November 10 the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed the Jones-Stanley bill to promote expeditious privatization of state surplus lands. Using techniques that have become standard practice under House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, the final text of the bill was kept secret until 24 hours prior to the vote. The bill was then sent through committee without public hearings. Several amendments containing unannounced text were then offered. The text of amendments was not read on the floor of the house, and the amendments were adopted without any discussion or debate, leaving observers baffled as to what was being enacted. It was clear that the most decisions regarding the text of the bill had been previously decided behind closed doors, and the publicly-observed floor action was mainly for show. The bill was then declared passed unanimously.

The new bill places the quasi-public agency MassDevelopment in a strong position to take state lands and convey them to private corporations for subsidized business development. The ability of municipalities to influence development within their borders is sharply curtailed. This is part of an overall theme of the current legislative session in which gifts to private corporations – under the guise of “economic development” – have been the drivers behind several major bills.

Legislators Ignored Call for Public Hearings

Over 30 public interest organizations – including the Sierra Club, MassPIRG, and community groups have signed a letter asking that public hearings be held before any community planning rights are taken away. Several boards of selectmen had passed resolutions asking for statewide hearings. These pleas apparently fell on deaf ears in the House. Public outcry had help stop a House vote on the bill in July. Learning from that lesson, the legislative leadership kept the impending vote secret until the last few hours and used secret caucuses to effectively eliminate any public discussion of the measure.

The Jones-Stanley bill was sent to the Senate which refused to take it up prior to the Thanksgiving recess. At this point, it is not clear whether the Senate will act before January. It remains to be seen whether the Massachusetts Senate will allow debate before acting on the measure.

Ineffective Provisions to Empower Communities

The success of the statewide grassroots effort in preventing a vote in July apparently resulted in several improvements to the original draft. Whereas the July version allowed MassDevelopment to take property even if communities were standing by with the cash to purchase it, the new version gives communities the “right of first refusal” if they commit to buy within 90 days. Unfortunately the selling price would be 85% of the price which the land would fetch if it were sold for its most intense development. Given the enormous fiscal stresses on municipal budgets and the high cost of land, and continued underfunding of state self-help programs, few communities are expected to come up with the cash to purchase state lands outright. The concept of no-cost transfers for public uses, suggested by the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities (MCHC), was proposed in an amendment offered on the floor by Rep. Anne Paulsen. Unfortunately, her amendment was rejected.

Attack on Local Zoning Weakened

The revised bill also appears to respond to MCHC criticism that H4491 undermines local zoning. In particular, the requirement that cities and towns create a special permit process for R&D; and manufacturing in all but residential districts was modified. Instead of requiring that communities create such a process, the bill now permits communities to create such a process (The word “shall” was replaced by “may”.) Special permitting downgrades local protection against harmful development because, unlike normal zoning controls, the special permit process puts the burden of proof on the municipality when a permit is denied. It also allows developers to overturn denials with lawsuits, something that they cannot do if a rezoning request is rejected. The state may pressure communities to enact such permitting by threatening to withhold economic development aid, but the bill itself does not require it.

Avoiding Accountability

Before Jones-Stanley, land transfers had to be approved by a vote of the legislature, and the required legislation was traditionally written by local legislators. Jones-Stanley weakens this protection considerable by giving gubernatorial appointees control over transfer proposals and providing that their plans receive automatic approval if no Legislative action is taken within 45 days of a bill emerging from committee. In particular, this provision allows local legislators, who may be caught between demands of their constituents and schemes proposed by real estate donors to their political campaigns, to avoid the accountability of sponsoring the transfer legislation. Controversial developments can be approved without a recorded vote.

Jones-Stanley Part of a Larger Attack on Municipal Planning Authority

The Jones-Stanley bill is part of a set of bills recently passed by the Legislature to weaken municipal authority over development and to provide substantial taxpayer subsidies to well-connected business interests such as large corporations and the biotech industry. In a script that has become familiar, Governor Romney and House Democratic Party leaders have engaged in a competition to see who can be the best friend of business lobbyists. Much of this year’s pro-development agenda was first revealed by Governor Romney in a February speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. A few weeks later, House Speaker DiMasi spoke to the same group and pledged to end the “nightmare” that municipal permitting was creating for developers. A set of bills followed in which both Democratic and Republican leadership acted in concert.

The so-called “economic stimulus” bill passed in October provides $200m in taxpayer money to subsidize infrastructure for office parks and other business facilities. An “expedited permitting” scheme creates a rushed permitting process that, when applied to a development, would give local conservation commissions and planning boards only 180 days to approve or deny all permits required for the project. One provision allows state land to be leased to private parties for 99-years – which is in effect a permanent transfer.

An article in the Boston Globe (“The Politics of Pork”, November 9) reported that $4.5m in the economic stimulus bill is directed to subsidize one project of the Boston real estate developer Arthur Winn. Winn is building a condominum/hotel over the Massachusetts Turnpike using state air rights. The appearance of favors for Arthur Winn is not surprising to observers of City of Waltham politics. Winn is a major campaign donor of Rep. Thomas Stanley, sponsor of the Jones-Stanley bill. Winn Development built luxury condominiums on the site of the former Waltham Hospital, a site that Rep. Stanley helped transfer to developers by pushing a land rezoning measure through Waltham City Council. Stanley recently ran for and was elected to Waltham City Council, which puts him in a key position to influence rezoning for the Fernald Development Center, a 200-acre jewel that developers are already jockeying to acquire.

Senate Asked to Rewrite the Bill

Community activists are asking the Senate to hold public hearings on Jones-Stanley and to substantially rewrite the bill. According to Jill Stein, president of MCHC, “This legislation marginalizes local planners. It pushes aside open space and affordable housing needs in order to promote occupation of public land by those for-profit corporations who can secure the favor of incumbent politicians. Communities and taxpayers have good reason to resist any such legislation that undermines their current planning rights.”

  

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