Beacon Hill Weekly Roundup - 1/19/05
Jack Clarke, Director of Public Policy & Government Relations
Karen Heymann, Legislative Director
Christina McDermott, Assistant to the Director of Public Policy & Government Relations
This Week: A NEW BEGINNING
New State Endangered Species Act Regulations
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is proposing to amend and enhance its rules and regulations under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). The Fisheries & Wildlife Board will conduct a public hearing at 2:00 P.M. on Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at the Karl Weiss Building, 100 North Drive, Room 102, Westborough, MA. The proposals would mark the first major state endangered species regulatory reform since the passage of MESA in 1990.
The existing list of endangered, threatened, and special concern species will not be changed or amended by these proposals. The proposed changes would establish a more formalized assessment of projects occurring in priority habitats; encourage early consultation with the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program to determine whether a proposed development will impact priority habitats; establish clear deadlines for agency decision-making; and, provide an administrative appeals process for denied projects. The text of the regulatory amendments can be found at http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/dfw_public_hearing.htm.
The reforms were developed through mediated negotiations among state agency staff, private consultants, and representatives from the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, and Mass Audubon. Mass Audubon defended successfully the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife in a 2002 legal challenge of its regulatory powers in Suffolk Superior Court. Since then, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties has charged in several newspaper op-eds that the implementation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act “often results in unnecessarily lengthy and expensive permitting and review processes that are also confusing to many developers and consultants.”
Mass Audubon is hopeful that these regulatory reforms will make the endangered species program more predictable, consistent, and efficient, while preserving necessary protections for imperiled species and habitats, heading off further attempts to weaken the Act. However, one aspect of the changes is of significant concern to Mass Audubon. The draft regulations contain ‘constructive approval’ provisions, by which the Division will set deadlines to act on permit applications, and if they fail to act by the end of the deadline, the project will automatically be approved. We are concerned that the Division might lack sufficient staffing to meet the workload and that this situation should not result in automatic approval of projects which will in fact adversely impact rare or endangered species. As an alternative remedy, Mass Audubon proposes that the final regulations include provisions for minimum staffing levels within Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, and if adequate staff is not available, then these constructive approval provisions should be suspended until staffing is restored.
Several people have requested an electronic version of my “Political Landscape” column—entitled “Romney’s Rollbacks”—from the Winter 2004-2005 issue of Sanctuary, the quarterly Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Subscription to Sanctuary is available through membership in Mass Audubon. It is unavailable online.
“The Political Landscape”
Cloaked in the rhetoric of "smart growth", the Romney administration has rescinded long-standing state policies and investments in land conservation. The move overlooks the fact that without strong land protection, growth cannot be smart. Merely trying to guide development to municipalities without protecting the most significant natural areas throughout the state leaves important lands completely vulnerable.
Despite progress in protecting land in recent years and growing citizen appreciation for natural resources, Massachusetts continues to lose over forty acres each day to development. The past three Republican governors all made conservation of our natural heritage an emblem of their legacy. Governor Mitt Romney, by contrast, has viewed land protection as a barrier to his top campaign pledge to double housing production.
In 1991, Governor William Weld challenged his administration to protect 100,000 acres of land. Upon completion of this milestone in 1998, Governor Paul Cellucci, Weld's successor, appointed a team of private nonprofit conservation organizations, businesses, and state environmental agencies to serve on a Blue Ribbon Panel on Land Protection, calling for preservation of an additional 200,000 acres within the next ten years. Less than three years later, Acting Governor Jane Swift announced that the Commonwealth had reached the 100,000-acre milestone, at half the expense, through use of conservation restrictions and partnerships with land trusts and municipalities. State government and its partners, under the leadership of Bob Durand, former Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA), conserved more land than was developed in the final days of Swift's tenure.
To set the Commonwealth's future course, the Swift administration teamed up with its nonprofit partners to develop a Statewide Open Space Plan. For eighteen months, a 33-member task force composed of nonprofit land conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and regional planning agencies identified unprotected lands that are significant to drinking water supplies, wildlife habitat, agriculture, forestry, and recreation. Mass Audubon served as the lead nongovernmental partner in presenting the plan to public audiences around the state. The plan set a public-private goal of protecting within the next decade one million acres - or roughly one-third of the remaining undeveloped land in Massachusetts – to conserve large tracts of functional ecosystems.
Unfortunately, the Statewide Open Space Plan did not survive Governor Romney's first year. Upon entering the corner office, the Romney administration shelved the plan, and directed EOEA to move away from acreage goals to retarget conservation as a reward for communities that increase housing production - with a particular focus on suburban areas that do not add significantly to the state's land holdings and operating costs.
"Without affecting municipal land-use regulation, the Commonwealth is relegated to buying mitigation for local policies that consume land, thwart housing production, or undercut downtown development," states a Romney administration policy document.
Land use decisions in "home-rule" Massachusetts are made by local volunteer-based boards that are often overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of development proposals. Local governments need increased technical and financial assistance to modify zoning ordinances and bylaws and prepare comprehensive master plans. Communities should make better use of existing infrastructure and encourage more compact, walkable, mixed- use areas. However, while state investments in "smart-growth" projects, such as overlay districts and transit-oriented development, make positive contributions to communities, they do not necessarily have any effect on protecting natural areas from new low-density development.
The switch in policy from landscape-scale conservation to urban and suburban greenspace protection has been aligned with the Romney administration's radical departure from past state investment practice. In Massachusetts, while the legislature authorizes issuance of general obligation bonds to provide funds for land protection (by passing bond bills), the Governor has sole responsibility for determining how to spend those authorizations. The average annual expenditure for land conservation in the Weld, Cellucci, and Swift administrations was roughly $50 million. In fiscal year 2004, Governor Romney approved only $18 million.
Responding to an outpouring of citizen input, Governor Romney increased his administration's fiscal year 2005 capital investment in land conservation to $27 million. Mass Audubon was a leader of a coalition of groups that generated hundreds of phone calls, emails, and letters to the Governor's office. While this commitment is a step in the right direction, additional state investments are necessary to regain the Commonwealth's position as a national leader in conservation.
Under Article 97 of the State Constitution, the conservation of natural resources is a right of the citizens of the Commonwealth. Governor Romney should realize that the Commonwealth has an intrinsic and essential duty to protect land in order to make "smart-growth" a genuine and lasting legacy.
The 2005-2006 state legislative session kicked off on January 5, 2005. As the new session gets underway, Mass Audubon will:
- Release our 2004 Legislative Report Card, the 20th annual edition. Mass Audubon will publish this past year’s voting records of state legislators on critical environmental roll calls.
- Introduce ourselves to the incoming chairpersons and members of the Joint Committee on Natural Resources & Agriculture, which conducts public hearings on environmental bills. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini are expected to announce committee assignments within the next couple weeks.
- Analyze Governor Romney’s fiscal year 2006 budget recommendations, which must be filed within three weeks after the convening of the new session (January 26, 2005), and submit our review to the House and Senate Committees on Ways & Means for preparation of the House and Senate budgets in the spring of 2005.
- Hold our 2005 Freshmen Legislators Luncheon at the State House. At the start of each biennial session, Mass Audubon brings together our staff and new legislators to introduce Mass Audubon’s legislative priorities.
Please contact us if you have any questions at: email@example.com.
About The Beacon Hill Weekly Roundup
The Beacon Hill Weekly Roundup tracks the legislative priorities of Mass Audubon, focusing on the protection of the nature of Massachusetts. We encourage you to forward this newsletter to friends, family, and colleagues and to enlist their support.
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