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Whitman

Whitman: Rushed land sale
Globe Editorial, August 31, 2004

THE LEGISLATURE and the Romney administration agree on the desirability of selling surplus state property that can be turned into sites for affordable housing, especially when the properties are in built-up areas near public transportation. Developing such parcels is at the heart of “smart growth.”

Selling off properties also makes sense as a source of needed revenue. But there should be no rush to the auction block when the property for sale is state land that communities or environmental organizations might want to buy for conservation reasons.

On Aug. 11, the state sold at auction a 28-acre parcel in rural Williamsburg in Hampshire County that both townspeople and an abutter, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, had expressed interest in preserving as open space. The sale occurred just seven weeks after official notification of local officials by the state, little time for a community or a nonprofit group to find a solution that would keep the land from being developed. The buyer, Robert Kelly of Brookline, who paid $286,000, could not be reached for comment.

State Representative Stephen Kulik of Worthington and state Senator Andrea Nuciforo of Pittsfield tried unsuccessfully to persuade the state Division of Capital Asset Management to postpone the sale for at least six months. Kulik called the sale “a stellar example of the wrong way to do business.”

Peter Norstrand of the Division of Capital Asset Management said the Williamsburg sale is the only one to have met community resistance among 24 conducted by his agency under special provisions in the fiscal 2004 budget. The sales have grossed more than $25 million. The state went ahead with the Williamsburg sale after including restrictions to protect stone walls, access to Audubon’s Graves Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, and trees larger than five feet in diameter. He said these restrictions will be included in the deed.

The restrictions are welcome, but the state lost a chance to work with the town and Audubon on an alternative that would have kept the parcel completely preserved. It is bad enough that the state has cut back drastically on its use of the environmental bond bill to protect open land. It should not be hurrying to sell the open land it already owns.

The provisions under which the Williamsburg parcel was sold expire next July 1. If legislators decide to extend them, they should require a notification period of at least six months for parcels that are of obvious interest to communities or nonprofit conservation organizations. Also, the state should not sell such properties at auction. Towns, which have to agree on their offers at public town meetings, are at a disadvantage at auctions because their high bid will be public knowledge. Assessing properties at fair market value and giving towns the right of first refusal would, in combination with longer notice, make it easier to protect choice lands.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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