Environmental groups are fighting a policy change proposed by the Patrick administration that could speed up permitting for some developers by launching the state's environmental review behind closed doors.
"Once again, they're trying to make these decisions in closed rooms without public participation," said Kyla Bennett, director of the New England office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The way we read this, it's a blatant elimination of an opportunity for the public to comment and participate in the MEPA [Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act] process."
MEPA calls for a consideration of the environmental consequences of large development projects or projects that require state funding or state permits. Before developers can apply for state permits, they must undergo a full environmental review that outlines steps required to reduce the environmental damage their projects might cause.
The proposed policy change would combine the MEPA and permit reviews so that agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection would be able to weigh in early with more detailed concerns and requests for information.
"Stronger environmental review is our main goal," said Ian A. Bowles, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "In practice, this will mean more proactive engagement from the permitting agencies, earlier decisions about project design to meet environmental requirements, and a few major issues left after environmental review is complete."
What has environmental activists fretting is the notion that the state would be working privately with developers to shape the environmental review before the public even gets wind of it.
Currently, the process starts when a developer files notice of plans, an environmental notification form, and the MEPA office publishes notice for public comment.
The policy change would let the developer meet with state environmental officials and help shape the scope of environmental review. Only then would the public be notified and invited to comment.
"The public, in general, and environmental advocates feel uncomfortable when developers and state agencies meet behind closed doors to work out what a project is going to look like," said James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club. "We believe that part of the process should be open, as well. There's no valid reason that we can see to exclude the public from that part of the process."
By the time the public sees a proposal, both the developer and the state environmental officials reviewing it may have made a significant investment in the plans, McCaffrey said.
A leading development group is concerned about costs that could result from that. In a letter submitted to the state, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties of Massachusetts said developers are worried that the detailed drawings and specific information they will be asked to present upfront would offset any time savings.
The costs of putting together an environmental notification form, which could be modified after public input, could increase tenfold, from $7,000 to $70,000, wrote David I. Begelfer, chief executive officer of the association.
Still, Begelfer said yesterday, his group remains "cautiously optimistic" that the policy change could improve the process by nudging agency officials to more thoroughly consider details of a project before it reaches the permitting stage.
Ironically, the change has been proposed as a pilot program for environmentally friendly developments such as those that adhere to so-called smart-growth principles.
But environmental activists said the policy change would allow other developers to apply for it. And, they said, even eco-friendly developments have their downside; an ecologically sound building proposed in the habitat of an endangered species could still prompt concerns.
Last summer, the Patrick administration attempted to limit residents' right to appeal state permit decisions on wetlands, a move designed to eliminate frivolous complaints that could needlessly tie up projects. But the state dropped that plan after environmentalists argued that the change would not speed development, but merely thwart public involvement, one of the cornerstones of Governor Deval Patrick's grass-roots gubernatorial campaign.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.