Letter to the editor from Ian Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs:
David S. Bernstein’s story “That Dirty Water” (News and Features, April 13) is based on a false premise: that the Patrick administration doesn’t care about the problem of groundwater in Boston’s Back Bay, and the evidence of that lack of commitment is the administration’s bill to maintain the focus of Chapter 91 licensing on waterfront properties.
In fact, the administration is very much concerned with the loss of groundwater, which is exposing the pilings supporting historic buildings throughout the Back Bay to rot. That’s why I co-chair, with Jim Hunt of the City of Boston, the City/State Groundwater Working Group, which, as you note in your article, is properly addressing this important issue of historic preservation. But the governor’s bill on landlocked filled tidelands is not about regulating groundwater. It addresses the question of whether Chapter 91, a law that protects the public interest in the waterfront, ought to be applied to non-waterfront property.
Under a Chapter 91 license, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) preserves waterfront property primarily for water-dependent uses, and requires waterfront developments to observe restrictions such as height limits and to provide amenities that allow the public to benefit from the waterfront. Chapter 91 licensing has given us Harbor Walk, as well as the glorious arch through the Boston Harbor Hotel that opens Rowe’s Wharf to the public for ferry service and also offers sheer pleasure. These waterfront improvements are not available to the public in property that is not at the water’s edge. That’s why, since 1990, DEP has excluded from Chapter 91 licensing filled lands that offer no meaningful access to the waterfront — that is, land more than 250 feet away from the water and across a public way.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) ruled in February that the department overstepped its legal authority in doing so by regulation, but raised no objection to the exemption itself. In fact, the court stayed its order for 180 days to give the legislature time to pass corrective legislation. The governor’s bill would provide that correction, by ratifying in statute the current regulation. When you juxtapose quotes from my testimony on this bill against the side issue of Back Bay groundwater, you make it seem as if I were ridiculing the need to protect historic properties from collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Along with our colleagues in the City of Boston, the MBTA, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the Patrick administration is committed to addressing the groundwater problem. But issuing licenses to ensure public access to properties that are in danger of falling to the ground is not going to solve it.
Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs