Mass Historical Commission Needs Reform

The Massachusetts Historic Commission (MHC) is an unusual agency of government, in that it frequently acts as if it is not accountable to the Governor or the Legislature – only to the Secretary of State’s Office.  As such, it often acts alone and in conflict with the other arms of government.

While most government agencies at least aspire to provide a transparent, fair, and predictable process, the MHC operates in a “black box.”  Although the MHC has regulations for the review of properties listed on the State Register of Historic Places, those regulations are not even available to the public on its website.  Furthermore, the review of the 180,000 sites that get listed on the MHC Inventory of Historic and Archaeological Assets of the Commonwealth is unclear and unpredictable.  The MHC has no regulations for submittal requirements, review timing and deadlines, or Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) for such projects so proponents are left without direction.

Project proponents must also deal separately with the requirements of the Mass Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) process and the MHC, often on different timetables, resulting in significant delays.  MEPA virtually always reaches its decisions in 30 or 37 days, as required by its regulations.  However, the MHC is required to make a determination within 30 days, and that deadline is rarely met.  The MHC staff and Director often do not respond to written notices, requests for information, or requests for meetings.  Further, they sometimes simply do not return phone calls to developers, other agencies, or the public.

Until recently, this was a dirty secret.  No one wanted to come forward to complain about the unreasonableness of the MHC’s actions (or inactions) for fear of retribution on a future project.  However, the recent episode involving Meditech has finally shown a bright light on this problem.

Meditech proposed to build a $65 million business park on 138 acres in Freetown near the new Route 24 interchange, eventually employing 800 workers.  No government funds or tax benefits are being used.  This facility would be their second project in the SouthCoast in the past two years. The first, located in Fall River, employs 500 workers.

Although Meditech agreed to leave 117 acres of the site undeveloped, the MHC still required Meditech to strip two feet of the remaining 21 acres to be sieved and inspected by archaeologists. Not surprisingly, with this requirement deemed impractical by the project proponent, the MHC refused to meet with them or representatives from the administration or legislature to discuss and resolve this problem.

As a result, Meditech may be walking away from a project in which they already invested $2 million.  The project would have provided needed jobs in a high unemployment area.  In response, Senator Michael Rodrigues just filed legislation that would limit the powers of the MHC. The proposed law would enable businesses, like Meditech, to develop their properties with input from the MHC, but it would reconfirm the statutory authority of the MHC only to properties listed on the State Register of Historic Places.

It should not be necessary to pass laws to require fairness and transparency from a state agency.  However, in this case, this seems to be the only way.

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