June 26, 2007
Legislative Hearing Raises Questions on Surplus Land Legislation
by John Andrews, MCHC
The lines were clearly drawn. On the one hand were proponents of bills to expedite the liquidation of state-owned lands by setting up a new state panel operating under executive procedures with strict timelines. On the other side, a set of municipal officials and citizen groups arguing that locally-based planning processes based on open, careful deliberations were essential to making good land use decisions. The members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets listened closely to the divergent views at the June 26 hearing.
Several members of the Joint Committee were openly sympathetic with municipal officials who asked that their key planning role under the current Chapter 7 not be stripped from them by the new legislation.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy who is grappling with the pending liquidation of the Fernald Development Center in Waltham told the panel “I understand that Chapter 7 does not fit the state’s needs , but it fits our needs. . . This (new) bill takes us out of the process.”
A chief proponent of expedited legislation was Marc Draisen of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning authority created by the state to provide planning assistance to communities in the Greater Boston area. MAPC is backing House 55, a bill that, among other things, would make MAPC a major player in the disposition process by providing them with funds to conduct a “smart growth review” for each larger site proposed for liquidation.
Speaking in favor of his closely related bill, House 60, was Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham). A third bill, Senate 39, was put forward by Rep. Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln). (For more information about these different bills, see MCHC’s public lands issue page, http://masschc.org/landuse.html.
John Andrews, testifying for the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, stressed that local planning boards with years of experience in a community could not be marginalized if we truly wanted to have “smart growth” planning. He noted that the rigid expedited timelines in the bills exposed communities to the risk being stuck with costly problems by providing insufficient time to understand site development problems, such as the extent of toxic contamination on a site or the traffic and environmental impacts of a development.
Co-chair Rep. David Flynn who chaired the meeting promised to take all the concerns into account before any final legislation was advanced, implying that no single bill was likely to go forward without some rewriting.
Below is the report on the hearing from State House News Service.
LAWMAKERS AGAIN HEAR WIDE ARRAY OF OPINIONS ON SURPLUS STATE LAND BILLS
By Priscilla Yeon
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 26, 2007…Municipal officials today spoke out against surplus state land disposal bills seeking to expedite the sale and development process, claiming the proposals will take away community participation during negotiations to determine the fate of parcels.
Bills that went before the Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets provide a timeframe for land disposition agreements, gives cities and towns the right of first refusal over parcels in their borders, and offer a discount sale price to municipalities who wish to buy surplus state land.
John Andrews, president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, testified in opposition to proposals that he said would replace a current law protecting the public interest by substituting it with an expedited disposition process.
Andrews said he is opposed to measures that would reform the Chapter 7 law, which includes provisions related to municipal participation during state land disposition process.
Several opponents of bills filed by Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham) and Sen. Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln) called the proposals “a bad idea” and said passage of the bills would “disempower communities” in the process that determined the disposition of surplus state lands.
Patrick administration General Counsel David Sullivan said the administration plans to review the proposed bills before taking a formal position. As a concept, Sullivan said, the administration is supportive of a new expedited process for state land disposition.
“We support the concept and we look forward to working with the committee to reach a consensus,” he said.
The state Division of Capital Asset Management’s Office of Surplus Property oversees the care of more than 300 buildings encompassing 4.5 million gross square feet and 2,200 acres of surplus land. The state itself describes the disposition process as “time consuming and complex, frequently requiring legislative action.”
In the last two-year session, the House and Senate each approved bills overhauling the disposition process but members of a conference committee could never reach agreement on a consensus bill. Two years ago, a law authorizing expedited sales of surplus property expired and the Legislature never acted on a bill sponsored by Gov. Mitt Romney to continue that law, which was credited with putting several tracts of land to productive uses. Critics of the expedited sales law said land use concerns of local groups were trampled while that law was in effect.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy spoke in opposition to a bill sponsored by her representative because she said it eliminates reuse committees, which are neighboring groups who come up with plan designs and land use restriction of state lands in their communities.
McCarthy, who has been involved in the reuse plan of the Waltham State Hospital for the past several years, said reuse committees strike a balance between state and local decision-making processes.
“We’ve always been on the table and I feel this bill removes us from the table,” said McCarthy. “We feel disenfranchised.”
Rep. Joyce Spiliotis (D-Peabody) said she agreed with the mayor on the importance of keeping the local process protected during state land sales.
Waltham City Councilor George Darcy urged legislators to oppose any proposal that takes away the input of citizens who will be faced with developments in their neighborhoods.
Darcy said he is also opposed to municipalities wishing to acquire state lands needing to pay for it. “It’s all public land,” he said.
Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, spoke in support of similar bills filed by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain) and Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). Both bills provide enough safeguards to communities in participating during the disposition process, he said. Draisen said both bills increase the protection of communities and encouraged the committee to consider “adjusting” aspects of the bill so no parties have “absolute veto” power.
Draisen also suggested that land parcels that have “small value” and impact on the communities should be able to bypass the Legislature’s approval.
Spiliotis disagreed with Draisen’s suggestion adding “I think we should vote on each parcel,” she said. Spiliotis said state land sales can affect water quality, schools and neighborhoods.
Chris Norris, assistant director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, agreed that the Sanchez and Spilka bills provide more municipal protection than the current law.
“Don’t be misled, there’s no control,” said Norris.
After the hearing, Committee C-Chair David Flynn (D-Bridgewater) said the committee will report a bill out that would combine several of the ideas contained in the different land disposition bills the committee vetted today.
Flynn said it was possible the committee that the committee would have a “combination bill” ready by late fall. “I want to start off by protecting the communities,” he said.