Recently passed legislation will help make the decrepit Daly athletic complex in Brighton a gem among our state parks. The legislation offers a positive model for protection of the public interest in public lands.
Parks have consistently fallen behind education, health care and lifeline human services in the ongoing competition for taxpayer dollars. Financial reality has compelled park stewards to seek private partners to help maintain our iconic public open spaces.
The partners that come forward — from local volunteer groups, to environmental organizations, to educational institutions seeking access to athletic facilities — have values and interests which may conflict with the values and interests of other park users. The challenge for state park stewards is to balance these values and interests while allowing the general public to benefit from the huge contributions that these groups wish to make.
While the executive branch has the primary responsibility for park stewardship, Article 97 of the state constitution gives the legislature a role in protecting park lands by requiring a two-thirds roll call vote of both branches for a lease or sale of public park land.
Although these votes are usually unanimous and taken without debate, the individual legislators moving the bills have a strong interest in protecting park land. Further, the standing committees of the legislature vet these bills before allowing them to reach the floor.
The legislation for the Daly athletic complex offers a useful example. The legislation grew out of efforts by local sports boosters to find a way to rehabilitate the football and baseball fields in the complex. They identified Simmons College as a partner willing to make an investment in the fields in return for access to the fields.
Representative Moran negotiated language that would allow DCR (the state’s parks agency) to give Simmons access to the property sufficient to justify its proposed $5 million investment, while at the same time assuring that Brighton High School, local sports leagues and the general public would benefit from the investment.
Representative Moran’s language sharply limits the hours of Simmons’ exclusive use and assures that DCR will continue to be the permitting authority for the complex. The language also specifically requires that the site will remain open to informal use when not permitted by DCR.
The timing of the local negotiations was such that the first opportunity to pass the authorizing legislation came in the budget process. In negotiations around the budget, legislators added requirements for a parking and traffic study, protection of a pathway along the river, clearer guarantees of access for non-Brighton users and a $500,000 contribution from Simmons towards the rehabilitation of park land across the river in Watertown.
Although local legislators had reached consensus, legislative leaders declined to include the Daly language as an outside section in the budget, thus allowing legislative standing committees to vet the language as a standalone bill.
In the committee vetting, language was added to assure that the public gets a fair deal in the partnership. The final legislation requires DCR to obtain an appraisal of the value of the access that Simmons College is getting as it compares to the value that the general public is getting in access to an improved complex. Further, DCR must submit the appraisal to the inspector general for review and comment before any lease is entered into.
The final bill, with its combination of substantive and procedural protections, guarantees much more value for the public than many similar bills.
The passage of the bill, although a major milestone, really represents the beginning of the process, not the end. DCR is now authorized to negotiate with Simmons, but has complete discretion whether to go forward with the partnership. The legislation does not bypass land use regulations and does not specify design details for the rehabilitation. DCR has indicated that it will subject the proposed lease to public environmental review.
The entire process will take a few years, but our hope and expectation is that, when the renovated complex opens, all interested parties will be pleased — including neighbors, environmental groups and those who have long worked to expand local youth recreational opportunities.