After a week of being excoriated by Massachusetts business leaders for proposed tax increases, Governor Deval L. Patrick yesterday changed the subject to a corporate crowd pleaser: Speeding up environmental regulatory approvals.
Patrick said he is ordering the Department of Environmental Protection to approve or reject 90 percent of all permit applications within 180 days, all but the most complex, up from 75 percent to 80 percent now. Also, Patrick directed Environmental and Energy Affairs Secretary Ian A. Bowles to have lawyers develop a plan by May 1 to unsnarl a logjam of cases at the obscure state Division of Administrative Law Appeals , where environmentalists and proponents of rejected projects can appeal DEP rulings.
During a public appearance at Genzyme Corp. headquarters, Patrick said there is no conflict between strong environmental protection and efficient decision-making.
“This government will move at the speed of business,” Patrick said, predicting that “it will translate into tens of millions of dollars in savings, and more importantly, I think it will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment” in job-creating projects.
Patrick said among more than 60 cases stuck at the appeals division, the best example of the kind of project he wants to rescue from regulatory limbo is the proposed 20-tower Hoosac Wind electric generation project in Florida and Monroe. Wetlands issues related to a proposed access road have been under review for two years, Patrick said.
For the last week, Patrick has been hammered by business groups for proposing to close what he calls corporate tax loopholes. The business groups call the proposal a job-killing $500 million tax increase. Yesterday, though, many of those same groups – including Associated Industries of Massachusetts , the state’s biggest business lobby, and the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties , a landlords’ and developers’ association – effusively praised the environmental plans.
“We heard a lot of talk throughout the campaign about streamlining permitting, and this is the first substantial step to move in that direction,” said David I. Begelfer, chief executive of the Massachusetts chapter of NAIOP. “We’re very, very excited about it.”
R. Jeffrey Lyman , a Goodwin Procter LLP real estate attorney and former assistant state environmental secretary, said, “I’ll give the governor credit: The hullabaloo about taxes from the business community is at least somewhat about the importance of predictability in state policymaking, and this is the same issue” in the environmental realm for businesses that need to know if they can build something.
Some environmentalists, however, were wary. Referring to Patrick’s four Republican predecessors, Jim Gomes , president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts , said, “We’ve had 16 years of pretty business-friendly administrations, so I am watching with interest to see what additional efficiencies can be squeezed out of these processes that are consistent with the governor’s pledge that development will still be environmentally friendly.”
Margaret Van Deusen , general counsel and deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association in Waltham, said it is alarming to her to hear Patrick praise the pro business regulatory efficiency of sprawl-plagued North Carolina and Texas. “Do we want to look like North Carolina or Texas?” Van Deusen said.
Legislators last year approved extra funding to move old cases through the appeals division, part of the state’s administration and finance secretariat, and ordered that most new cases get acted on within 90 days. But Arleen O’Donnell , acting commissioner of the DEP, said “it’s not a dollars problem per se, it’s a problem with the way the appeals process works,” including new issues being litigated during appeals that never came up in permit reviews.
By Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff
2 March 2007
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