Good to Great: Realigning Resources at Environmental Agencies

The following is our weekly excerpt from NAIOP’s report, Good to Great: Recommendations for the Baker Polito Administration. Comments are encouraged!

When considering a long-term vision for the Commonwealth’s environmental agencies, NAIOP encourages the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs (EEA) to start by realigning resources to ensure 1) environmental protection and 2) that resources are appropriately allocated to ensure timely and predictable permitting. In recent years, the regulated community has observed that a larger percentage of staff at the environmental agencies is focused on the development of new policies and regulations instead of the expedient implementation of existing regulations (i.e., permit approvals, compliance assistance, etc.). Prompt and predictable permitting is critical for economic development projects and ensures increased tax revenue for the Commonwealth. Compliance assistance programs provide a preventive and cost effective approach to ensuring environmental protection.

Therefore, NAIOP proposes the following recommendations:

  • Tie Permit Fees to Results: Permit streamlining was brought to MassDEP’s doorstep in the late 1980’s. Facing considerable time delays for the issuance of permits with no timetables, NAIOP was a founding member of the MassDEP Fees and Program Advisory Committee that established a fee program for all permits and a retained revenue account in return for the MassDEP’s agreement to set enforceable timetables for administrative review, technical review, and issuance of permits. General results were positive and fees have been adjusted gradually over the years to reflect cost of living increases. Permitting fees went into a dedicated revenue account, which was intended to supplement the MassDEP budget so that it could continue to provide its other non-permitting services. The original committee included NAIOP, AIM, Mass Municipal Association, MASSPIRG, Environmental League of Massachusetts, and other private and public sector representatives. The enacting statute establishing the agreement and authorizing MassDEP to establish the fee program is M.G.L., c. 21A, §18 and the regulations are at 310 CMR 4.00.As the architects of the Program left state government and Massachusetts faced revenue shortfalls, the original agreement was sacrificed for revenues. Gradually the Legislature began to apply permit monies to the MassDEP operating budget. Rather than decreasing the time for permit issuance based upon the lesser number of permits due to a slow economy, the General Fund percentage decreased for the MassDEP budget. As recently as 2013, the Fees Committee wrote to the Governor and to the Ways and Means Committees requesting that the agreement be honored. Business was hesitant to support the Department’s request for additional funding based upon the legislative track record applying fees for operations. NAIOP urges the Baker Polito Administration to reinstate the original agreement and ensure permitting fees are directed to the dedicated revenue account to ensure adequate resources for permit issuance.
  • Increase Use of General Permits: NAIOP encourages all environmental agencies to consider increasing the use of general permits. General permits are more cost effective and achieve the same goal as individualized permits, but do so faster and more cost-effectively and provide a higher level of certainty in outcome (including reducing the risk of permit appeals). In order for this to work, however, it is critical that agencies be committed to making these general permits effective and not so limited in scope or so overly burdened by contingent conditions that they are no longer useful. EEA should conduct an internal review of all programs to identify those that could move, in whole or in part, from individualized permits to general permits.
  • Move to Permit-by-Rule (aka self-certification): Self-certification needs limited staff resources to administer and oversee and uses enforceable third-party certifications to ensure that rules are met and standards are achieved. MassDEP is already using self-certification for some programs, but there are numerous opportunities for expanding the use of this cost-effective and proven regulatory approach.
  • Increase Permitting Staffing for Waterways Program: Waterways is responsible for issuing Chapter 91 licenses for docks, piers, and other water-dependent structures as well as non-water dependent uses and structures on tidelands and filled tidelands. It is involved in almost every major coastal project, including transportation, energy, infrastructure, commercial buildings and housing. Staff has recently been increased to five persons, still woefully inadequate to ensure timely processing of project permitting demands. The lack of staff is holding back the development of many major public and private projects. Additional resources must be committed and dedicated to new employees that focus solely on Waterways permitting and not policy development.
  • Continue Regulatory Reform Implementation: The Regulatory Reform initiative was originally motivated by a reduced budget affecting staff permitting and oversight, but the effort has also resulted in important regulatory and policy changes. Continually reviewing existing regulations to determine if they are needed or if changes are required, and closely examining the costs and benefits associated with new regulations before they are drafted, should be a top priority for the Baker Polito Administration (and is required under Chapter 238 of the Acts of 2012).
  • Provide MassDEP with Delegated Authority over National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Programs and the Funding Needed to Adequately Administer the Program: As of June 2013, 46 states had been authorized to administer the federal NPDES permit program. Massachusetts is just one of four states in the nation where the federal government is in charge of the permit issuance, compliance and enforcement for the 2,990 NPDES permit holders in Massachusetts. MassDEP jointly issues NPDES permits with EPA. Having MassDEP as the sole permitting authority with EPA limited to an oversight role could result in a more efficient permitting process. In addition, as the NPDES program continues to evolve in response to increased concerns over issues like nutrient loading and stormwater impacts, MassDEP would have greater control over policy decisions. However, appropriate resources would be needed (estimated at approximately $9.5 million per year) to ensure a carefully coordinated approach to watershed management.
  • Concentrate on Implementing & Enforcing Existing Rules and Regulations: Agencies should concentrate on implementing and enforcing existing rules and regulations before expending resources on new program and policy development. This builds on the Regulatory Reform Initiative and is critical for the proper allocation of resources.

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