A hearing was held last week at the Mass. State House regarding Bill H833, regarding Commercial Wharf and its ongoing dispute with the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regarding Chapter 91 requirements at the North End / Waterfront property.
Legislators, not known for brevity, have officially titled the bill, An Act confirming Commercial Wharf East Condominium Association present uses as authorized by the Downtown Waterfront-Faneuil Hall Urban Renewal Plan and Chapter 663 of the Acts of 1964 and Chapter 310 of the Acts of 1972 and preventing residents from being forced to sell their property and leave.
“This bill is simply about preserving homes and businesses,” said CWECA President Cheryl Delgreco. “It is about preserving the grandfathered status of Commercial Wharf. This bill has nothing to do with public access, which we have openly committed to support for over 15 years,” she added.
Several residents of Commercial Wharf similarly testified in favor of the legislation at the hearing. CWECA blames the abutting Boston Yacht Haven for initially seeking the DEP ruling as a way to “gain leverage over Commercial Wharf.” At the end of this post, see the full letter by CWECA.
CWECA’s lawyer spoke at the October North End / Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) meeting to explain the condo association’s view on the current situation and the legislation that is being pursued. Watch the video below for that presentation.
Boston Harbor Now and the Conservation Law Foundation, both private non-profits that advocate for the harbor’s public use, testified against the bill at the hearing.
In a blog post, the CLF raises the concern of setting a precedent, “The bill (H.833) would exempt the condo association from getting a Chapter 91 license, allowing it to ignore its legal obligations to provide public access and benefits on its property. This bill isn’t just about giving a single condo association an out when it comes to following the law, however. Any weakening of DEP’s authority to enforce the public’s right to access and use tidelands would have implications across the Commonwealth.”
In its opposition letter (pdf) from last year, BHN writes, “We appreciate that Commercial Wharf East Condominiums, the owner of the property, might prefer otherwise but site-specific legislative exemptions to the rules would have catastrophic consequences for the public’s rights and the orderly development of the waterfront.”
How did this predicament come to be? In 2004, a private developer bought up 12 units and converted them from commercial to residential. These were part of what Yacht Haven claimed were 36 total units changed to residential in its initial 2011 request for determination. The condo association notes that DEP issued a minor modification for the 12 units that found this was an insignificant deviation and it was permitted. The deeds for these units were then changed so they could only be used as residential units going forward. They further argue Commercial Wharf has always been “mixed use” between commercial and residential and is Ch. 91 grandfathered under the auspices of “urban renewal” designations in the prior decades.
The DEP says the prior “minor modification” is non-binding and was part of a larger change in use. It intends to enforce Chapter 91 licensing regulations at Commercial Wharf, which would negate the property’s grandfathered status and start a negotiation regarding use and access throughout the entire wharf. In a separate lawsuit, the DEP and condo are in a dispute over parking rights.
While the legislation and related lawsuits are pending, Tavistock has introduced its proposal to redevelop Joe’s, the burned commercial buildings and south Harborwalk at Commercial Wharf. The condo association intends to release its own plan for a Harborwalk in the coming weeks, which we plan to share here on NorthEndWaterfront.com. Below is the full letter by CWECA regarding the State House bill.
Note: This post was updated to add more details regarding the long-standing dispute between the various Commercial Wharf entities and the DEP.