Real Estate News

Why an East Boston non-profit is suing a state agency over its ruling to maintain protected land

"The more you look at it, the more you just can't make sense out of any kind of waterfront industrial project."

A view from atop 80 Border Street, as seen on April 24, 2003. Tom Landers

An East Boston non-profit is gearing up to battle a state agency in court, after filing a claim Monday, Jan. 23 that the agency unlawfully obstructed its property proposal.

East Boston Community Development Corporation (EBCDC) tried to declassify a Designated Port Area to build “affordable housing, community access space, and climate resilience structures,” according to court documents. The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management struck down the attempt and the non-profit is suing them over what they deem an unfair ruling.

Designated Port Areas are reserved for industrial and maritime purposes, according to the Code of Massachusetts Regulations for DPAs


EBCDC claims its properties — 80 and 102 Border Street — “are not viable for maritime use.” Valerie Moore, one of the lawyers representing EBCDC, said the area is mostly residential now and the designation does not match the needs of the community.

“By restricting the uses that [the land] can be put to and continuing to apply this 1970s era policy to it, we’re precluding the community from getting the affordable housing it desperately needs, and the coastal resiliency infrastructure that it desperately needs,” said Moore, also a partner at Nutter McClennen and Fish.

What is a DPA and why does it matter?

There are 10 total DPAs in the state, all of which have been deemed to have “state, regional, and national significance” to water-reliant industries, according to the CZM Port and Harbor Planning webpage.

“State policy seeks to preserve and enhance the capacity of the DPAs to accommodate water-dependent industrial uses and prevent the exclusion of such uses from tidelands within DPAs,” the website reads.

In Jan. 2020, EBCDC requested that the city reevaluate its port designation for the two properties. CZM largely denied the request in Dec. 2022, choosing to keep the majority of the space in the DPA, halting development plans. 


EBCDC claims 80 Border Street is landlocked and should be exempt from the port designation. It also claims that 102 Border Street’s coast has “never been dredged” and “would require that tens of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediments be dredged to provide access to the navigation channel.”

EBCDC Deputy Director Sal Colombo said 80 Border Street is less of a concern because CZM already approved its uses, including an artwork gallery and the Boston Museum and Historical Society. 

At 102 Border Street — where the group wanted to transform the building into affordable housing units — the DPA would need to be lifted. Colombo said that because affordable housing is in such high demand this decision has detrimental effects. 

“The population is growing faster than we can supply the units,” he said. “It just makes our job that much harder.”

The CZM’s choice is unreasonable, he added, because of the residential landscape of the area.

“The more you look at it, the more you just can’t make sense out of any kind of waterfront industrial project,” Colombo said. 

DPAs crop up often in waterfront property conversations

Moore said by refusing to take away the land designation, the CZM’s decision will have devastating consequences for the community.” In the complaint, EBCDC also called out the state agency for blocking environmental justice measures that could prevent sea rise.


Mayor Michelle Wu made sea level rise a priority in the past and took a particular interest in East Boston in 2022. 

She also took aim at DPAs, citing similar claims to those EBCDC is now using for its case. In this instance, CZM’s review resulted in more than nine acres of land being removed from the Chelsea DPA area at Jeffries Point in East Boston.

Alex Boccon-Gibod, a second-year Master and City Planning student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, worked on a project in 2022 that looked into future uses of the land located within the Chelsea DPA. 

The team quickly realized this would pose a problem for any waterfront development, so they started brainstorming ways to use the space that fit within the DPA restrictions. 

“These areas are already suited for waterfront use, we’re gonna keep it that way,” Boccon-Gibod said his team decided about the project early on. 

CZM provisions allow for 25% of the land area to be used for non-maritime or industrial purposes, according to the CMR for Review and Approval of Municipal Harbor Plans. He said they used this to adjust their proposal and present new opportunities for the space.

Boccon-Gibod added that he believes “there is a place for something like a DPA,” especially when considering how rare they are. 

In Salem, the DPA includes a port that was recently tapped to help with offshore wind initiatives. As of now, the Salem Harbor Port Authority is working alongside others to develop the area for this use.


Given the recent filing of EBCDC’s complaint, it’s currently unclear whether the case will make it to court.


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