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Workshop Encourages Residents to Advocate for Chapter 91 Waterfront Rights

The Conservation Law Foundation held a forum on September 20th about the role of Chapter 91 in protecting Boston’s waterfront, sponsored by the local group, We Are Boston’s Waterfront.

“We want to educate as many residents as we can on these principles so you can be an advocate in your own neighborhood,” said Deanna Moran, Director of Environmental Planning of Conservation Law.

According to Moran, for a long time there was no interest in development along the waterfront because it was such an unattractive area. However, when it was finally cleaned, there was tremendous interest in developing the waterfront.

“It was completely transformed,” she said.

Chapter 91 is the Commonwealth’s “primary tool for protection and promotion of public use of its tidelands and other waterways is Massachusetts General Law Chapter 91, the waterways licensing program. The Commonwealth formally established the program in 1866, but the philosophy behind Chapter 91 dates back to the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, most notably in the Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1647,” said the state’s website.

According to the state website, Chapter 91 regulates activities on both coastal and inland waterways, including construction, dredging and filling in tidelands, great ponds and certain rivers and streams.

Developments that need a waterfront license are new structures including roads, bridges, parking lots, pipes, tunnels. Also, substantial changes like converting a parking lot into an office.

Moran said when a development is interested in a project along the waterfront they have a long process to go through to get a license and receive approval. First, they have to apply with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Then there will be a public hearing. After that DEP has 90 days to decide if they want to grant approval to the project or not.

If the project gets a green light but a resident is against it, they have 21 days to appeal it.

Residents do have several rights when it comes to the waterfront. They have the right to boat, kayak, go fishing or birding on the tidelands. They have the right to freely move about and use public open space. They also have the right to demand significant public benefits in exchange for private development.

Other rights include right to expect readable and unambiguous signage and right to well maintained and actively programmed public spaces.

According to Moran, all of the developments need to provide some sort of public benefit to get a license approval. During the process to get a license, they promise many great things but once they are granted it, they often don’t keep their word.

Moran said many developments have well-manicured lawns or open spaces but since there is no clear signage that the public can use the space, nobody does, which is in violation of their license.

Part of Conservation Law Foundation’s role is to go to different sites to make sure they are following the regulations of their license. However, Moran said residents have a right to see development’s licenses and if they see a violation, they can report it to the DEP.

“People don’t know how much they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “These developments have to provide a benefit to the public. It’s their job.”

Moran said the Conversation Law Foundation is pushing DEP to give fines to developments that are going against the rules of their licenses.

“This gives them an incentive to follow it,” said Moran.

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