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The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) order supersedes the Quincy Conservation Commission’s denial of Boston’s application related to the bridge’s construction.
“The commission does not explain in its brief, and did not explain in its decisions denying Boston’s application, how its own analysis differs from the analysis that the DEP was authorized to perform,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, and as discussed further infra, we conclude that the DEP’s superseding order of conditions preempts the commission’s determination.”
Boston closed the bridge that connected to Long Island from Quincy’s Moon Island in 2014, citing safety concerns. The bridge to the island, which was home to one of Boston’s largest emergency homeless shelters and rehabilitation facilities, was demolished in 2015. In 2018, Boston began its efforts to rebuild the bridge in earnest, with former Mayor Marty Walsh vowing to restore facilities offering addiction treatment services on the island.
Because the bridge would impact wetlands in Quincy, Boston petitioned the neighboring city’s Conservation Commission for permission. Quincy denied the request, prompting Boston to ask for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for a superseding order of conditions.
The state agency allowed the project to go forward, which the SJC pointed to in its ruling Monday.
“We conclude that the DEP order supersedes that of the commission because the commission did not rest its determination on more stringent local provisions,” the ruling reads.
Legal challenges from Quincy have delayed rebuilding the bridge for years, with officials citing concerns ranging from the environmental impacts to increased traffic for the Squantum neighborhood, where the bridge would connect to the island. Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins announced plans to investigate whether Quincy’s opposition to the bridge project constitutes civil rights violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes language prohibiting discrimination against those who have substance use issues.
The loss of the 400,000-square-foot campus on Long Island and demolition of the bridge have been cited in the ensuing years by officials as being one of the primary drivers of the worsening situation around Mass. and Cass, which has exploded in recent years as the epicenter of the overlapping crises of addiction, mental health, and homelessness in the city.
On Monday, a City of Boston spokesperson hailed the decision from the SJC.
“This major victory for Boston protects our authority to serve our residents with the greatest needs,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “[Monday’s] decision will allow Boston to continue exploring the potential and opportunities on Long Island to connect our residents with substance use disorder services and housing. We look forward to collaborating with our local and state partners to ensure that every person impacted by substance use has a path to a stable recovery and housing.”
Christopher Walker, chief of staff to Quincy Mayor Thomas P. Koch, told The Boston Globe on Monday that “obviously it’s not the decision we had hoped for” but said the city would continue to raise its many environmental and structural concerns.
“This is not remotely a green light for a new bridge,” Walker told the newspaper.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced in January that her administration is focusing on how best to utilize the island, citing its “huge potential” for helping with the city’s housing and recovery needs.
During an appearance on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” on Monday, Wu said the city is “still a little ways away” from breaking ground on the island or bridge.
“We need to first decide and set what the plan is for services that will be offered on the island before rushing into the best mechanisms of formalizing the transportation to the island,” she said.
Wu pointed out that there will be “ripple effects” from any changing up of services and also cited the concerns of indigenous communities that have alerted the city to sacred sites on the island. Additionally, she said there is the challenge that the buildings on the island are in “pretty rough shape” after sitting vacant for seven years.
When asked about a potential timeline, the mayor said the primary focus is to ensure that going into the fall and winter the situation around Mass. and Cass doesn’t return to the conditions seen last year.
The Wu administration has said it is prioritizing public health in response to the humanitarian crisis in the area. So far, public health experts say the approach is working, but residents in the area and some public officials continue to call for more involvement of law enforcement to address ongoing public safety concerns.
“Our focus right now is to maintain where we are with Mass. and Cass. … Every single day we continue to take down tents so that area is clear and does not have fortified encampments,” Wu said. “And we’re looking to decentralize services, too.”
The mayor said the Shattuck Hospital will be a key piece in decentralizing services, echoing her previous statements that she sees Long Island as a longer-term solution in concert with other services.
Wu said she has previously had “great conversations” with Quincy’s mayor and hopes they can “be partners in this work, instead of adversaries,” noting that more than 80 percent of the people living unhoused in the area of Mass. and Cass hail from municipalities outside of Boston.
“This is a regional challenge that Boston is taking on right now. … We know that we are a central city that is providing the services, and as that safety net we need that support from the state and regional partners and will look to do this as collaboratively as possible,” she said.
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