August 3, 2007
Legislature rolls back tidelands protection
By Eli Beckerman, MCHC
On Thursday, July 26, the State House of Representatives voted 118-32 to pass a tidelands licensing bill that significantly weakens environmental protections and community input on the use of filled (“landlocked”) tidelands. The bill has been a priority of the Patrick Administration ever since the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of citizens seeking public input on the massive North Point development in Cambridge. Two high-ranking Patrick appointees were employed by North Point developers prior to being selected for posts in the new Administration.
Earlier versions of the bill that had been released for public comment were drastically rewritten in closed-door negotiations, then released the day before the vote. The bill was rushed through committee within hours and a series of complex amendments were negotiated in the backrooms of the Legislature, and adopted on the House floor. Observing this choreographed show, the State House News noted that the bill underwent “heavy alterations with little explanation.”
Currently a developer seeking to alter tidelands must demonstrate that some public benefits will be produced by the alteration. The House bill redefines public benefits to include housing, tax revenues, or jobs, which creates a major loophole by which any intense development can be approved.
The State Senate unanimously passed a different bill on July 31, using similar secretive maneuvers, which also reflects the persuasion of heavy-handed and well-financed business lobbyists. Now the House and Senate will try to reconcile their separate bills in a 6-person conference committee. The State Legislature must act by September 6th to avoid having to comply with the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that would require full Chapter 91 protection of tidelands. Both versions of the bill fundamentally weaken the public trust doctrine and anything can happen in the conference committee, including new provisions that further the erosion of public trust rights.
In addition to redefining public benefits, the House bill establishes a tidelands czar within the Executive Office of Administration and Finance – a state fiscal agency. This person has arbitrary power to approve developments in tidelands based upon the vague guidance of the bill. The bill requires the tidelands czar to have experience with million dollar real estate projects – but requires absolutely no environmental expertise or experience.
John Andrews, president of MCHC, expressed concern over who might be appointed to the position of tidelands czar, noting that “Governor Patrick’s tendency to appoint real estate industry operatives to key administration positions is of concern. Giving such appointees sweeping authorities over tidelands could mean the end of any meaningful protection of community rights.” The Patrick administration’s shepherding of this bill means that anything the House and Senate can agree upon to exempt development on filled tidelands from Chapter 91 licensing will be signed.
For more information and the text of the legislation, see the MCHC issue page for tidelands development http://www.masschc.org/development.html