Shame on the House’s Kraft land grab

Stealth amendment should be rejected by the Senate

THIS END-OF-SESSION season is when the Legislature’s aversion to transparency and penchant for back-room deals become the mortar and pestle of terrible policy decisions at the expense of the public interest.

The economic development bill passed by the House of Representatives presents the latest case-in-point.  Quietly tucked into the bill was an amendment that would exempt an enormous parcel of land in Everett from state laws that govern waterfront development and protect the public trust.  Reporting by the Boston Globe’s Andrea Estes and Matt Stout revealed that the amendment emerged from backroom discussions aiming to advance the billionaire Kraft family’s interest in developing a soccer stadium on the site.

The land at issue is the site of the Mystic Generating Station, a critical piece of real estate on the city of Everett’s waterfront, and the scale of this proposed redevelopment would impact residents and workers throughout Everett and residents of surrounding Charlestown, Chelsea, Somerville, and Malden neighborhoods.

Why was the parcel removed from waterfront regulations and a designated port area in the end-of-session rush without public input? The Mystic plant won’t be decommissioned until at least 2024, so it’s hardly an emergency.  And putting the merits of a soccer stadium aside, no public case has been made for exempting whatever redevelopment may be appropriate at the  site from laws prioritizing water-dependent uses with public access to the water.

Affected communities should be given a voice concerning the future of the site and should have the leverage that current law provides to protect their interests in the redevelopment process.  At the very least, they should be informed on the waterfront access rights being sacrificed at the altar of an influential developer.

The amendment was adopted in the House with no committee input and little or no floor debate. If the amendment is adopted as part of the final economic development bill, it will extinguish the public’s trust rights in the land, exclude the public from Everett and surrounding communities from a critical part of the redevelopment process, and permanently exclude all Commonwealth residents from exercising their constitutionally based rights to access the site.

The state’s waterfront development law (Chapter 91) codifies the constitutional responsibility of the Commonwealth to preserve and protect the public’s rights in trust lands, and to guarantee that private uses of tidelands and waterways serve a proper public purpose. Water-dependent and non-water dependent projects on tidelands are subject to licensing to ensure that they meet certain standards that preserve and promote public access and benefit. This amendment would allow the redevelopment of this site to bypass that long-standing process.

Residents of Everett and surrounding communities have long been excluded from accessing the waterfront due to its historically industrial nature. Allowing the redevelopment of this property to bypass the process for altering port boundaries and the Chapter 91 review process that would otherwise secure long-awaited public access and benefits for the region’s residents is unconscionable.

The law applies to every other waterfront development in Massachusetts. Yet this amendment would rob residents of the opportunity to meaningfully participate in and meaningfully influence the redevelopment process, access the water in accordance with their public trust rights, or benefit from the redevelopment of the site.

We have already begun to see a disturbing trend of privatization of the Commonwealth’s waterfront and loss of waterfront industrial jobs in recent years. Allowing this amendment to stand would create a dangerous precedent and severely undermine the state’s public trust responsibilities. It jeopardizes waterfront public access across the Commonwealth by signaling to developers that legislative exemptions to state law are an acceptable pathway to increasing private land value and private profits at the expense of residents.

Meet the Author
Now that the basis for this amendment has been daylighted, there is time for the better angels of the Legislature’s nature to prevail.  The Senate must refuse any similar amendment in their chamber, and members of both chambers should give a nod to restoring the public’s trust by omitting this ill-considered provision when they reconcile the Senate and House bills.

Bradley Campbell is the president of the Conservation Law Foundation.