Environmental activists are fuming because Governor Deval Patrick is trying to limit residents’ right to appeal state permit decisions as part of an effort to speed up permitting decisions for developers.
Advocates contend that the administration is not practicing what it preached during the campaign: openness and civic involvement for all. On devalpatrick.com, the website formed to solicit citizen input and to engage the governor’s vast grass-roots network, readers are panning the notion of restricting citizens’ involvement in the permitting process for wetlands development.
The administration wants to rewrite wetlands regulations curbing that right of appeal.
“I consider this proposal to be a violation of Governor Patrick’s campaign pledge to get citizens more involved in state government,” wrote one poster from Quincy.
“The regulatory changes would decrease citizen involvement – not something I thought this administration would be doing!” wrote a poster from Somerville.
But state environmental officials dismissed the notion that the administration was closing the door to citizen input, saying officials are merely trying to accelerate an unwieldy process.
“Delay in and of itself is not environmental protection,” said Ian A. Bowles, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “This is an overall effort to look at what are the most time-consuming parts of the environmental regulatory process. We have good projects that just get delayed.”
As a case in point, administration officials pointed to Hoosac Wind, a proposed wind farm in the Berkshires whose wetlands permit was successfully challenged by residents before the Division of Administrative Law Appeals. The Department of Environmental Protection rejected the administrative decision, affirmed the wetlands permits, and is now facing a fight by residents in Superior Court.
“If it’s renewable energy or some other project that has tenuous financing, a two-year delay . . . can really kill off a good project,” Bowles said.
Currently, residents who object to a wetlands permit can appeal the decision made by their local conservation commission to the Department of Environmental Protection. If that appeal is unsuccessful, a group of 10 or more residents – regardless of whether they are personally affected by the development – can challenge the state’s decision before an administrative magistrate, in a process that is cheaper and easier than going to court but can drag on for more than a year.
The proposed revisions, which face a second public hearing Aug. 8, would limit this part of the appeal process to six months and to those who are aggrieved. Residents could still appeal the initial decision by the local conservation commission to the state, and appeal the state decision to the courts, if they could demonstrate they have standing. But advocates say it would remove a backstop on department’s decisions.
“It will have such a chilling effect,” said Deirdre Menoyo, a former assistant Department of Environmental Protection commissioner who opposes the changes and whose posting started the stir on Patrick’s website. “It will remove one of the checks that [the Department of Environmental Protection] now has of knowing that someone else might be looking over their shoulder when they’re making decisions.”
Last year, as part of a bill that streamlined permitting in other areas, the Legislature cracked down on these so-called “10-taxpayer” challenges of waterfront development by requiring that at least five members of the group live in the affected city or town, and that all file affidavits expressing their intent to join the group and clearly stating their grounds for involvement.
A bill passed this week in the House created further confusion around the law regulating waterfront development. It would create an Office of Tidelands and Great Ponds that would advise the department about the public benefits offered by waterfront projects. Business leaders regard the measure as added bureaucracy and a dangerous opportunity to expand the existing environmental reach of the law to pressure developers to offer more housing and economic development.
“This is criminal,” said David Begelfer, chief executive officer of the state chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. “It’s unclear, it’s subjective, and it’s political. That’s not what we need to have here for a clear process.”
Environmental groups acknowledge that groups of citizens occasionally throw a wrench into a developer’s plans by abusing the process to stall the construction of an unwanted project in their backyards. But activists say that they are not responsible for the clogs in the system. The state already cracked down on wetlands appeals in 2005, restricting them to people who had been involved in early hearings on the case.
The number of citizen appeals dropped from 21 in 2004 to four last year, said Kyla Bennett, director of the New England office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The administration said the number is climbing, to 13 halfway through 2007.
“As a scientist, the way I work things is to say, ‘What’s the problem, and do we have the tools to fix it?’ ” Bennett said. “This isn’t a problem, and, even if it were, the answer wouldn’t be ‘eliminate 10-citizens appeals.’ It would be ‘get more judges.’ ”
By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff
29 July 2007