A month after a Suffolk County judge tossed out harbor development plans across the state — including a much-debated one in downtown Boston — the Baker administration is trying for a quick fix that would allow waterfront buildings to go forward again.
State environmental officials on Friday began the process of reapproving 17 municipal harbor plans that govern building along waterfronts from Gloucester to New Bedford, hoping that will be faster than appealing the recent court decision, which said the state has been improperly approving the plans for decades.
The ruling has thrown a number of big projects into legal limbo, not least among them developer Don Chiofaro’s plan for a 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.
Opponents of that project — the Conservation Law Foundation and Chiofaro’s neighbors at the Harbor Towers condominium complex — filed suit against Boston’s 2018 downtown harbor plan. They argued that the state erred in having then-environmental affairs secretary Matt Beaton sign off on the plan instead of the more bureaucratic Department of Environmental Protection — as is spelled out in state law.
Judge Brian Davis agreed and invalidated not just Boston’s downtown municipal harbor plan but 16 others that had been approved in the same way since the 1990s. The ruling upended countless projects around the state, which rely on the guidelines for building height, open space, and other design components that have been written into local harbor plans.
The Baker administration has been weighing how to respond and on Friday said it is still considering an appeal, which if successful would allow environmental secretaries to bless harbor plans in the future. Real estate trade groups also have floated the idea of changing state law to clarify the process.
But in the meantime, “in order to address uncertainty about the status of municipal harbor plans,” a Baker spokeswoman said that environmental regulators aim to “affirm” the existing plans through the DEP, as state law requires.
That means a new round of public review for the plans by state environmental agencies, but not the often-lengthy process of rewriting them at the local level first. That could mean the difference between months of delay and perhaps years. State officials on Friday started the process of soliciting public comments, which could begin later in May.
“MassDEP looks forward to engaging with municipalities and stakeholders on these draft regulations, and remains committed to ensuring that waterfront planning is an open and public process that enhances the public benefits associated with access to tidelands and waterways,” said Katie Gronendyke, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Given the uncertainty around harbor plans since Davis’s ruling, Baker’s approach of fixing them through the regulatory process — as opposed to seeking legislation or pursuing court appeals — makes sense, said Kathy Abbott, CEO of the waterfront advocacy group Boston Harbor Now.
Waterfront communities and developers alike need clear rules, she said, and soon.
But, she said, that tactic doesn’t address larger concerns such as how to cope with climate change or ensure broad public access to the waterfront, concerns that critics of Boston’s 42-acre downtown harbor plan say the years-long process ignored while focusing on the particulars of Chiofaro’s long-debated tower.
“This goes beyond a single court case,” she said. “We’re finally beginning to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This harbor really belongs to everybody.’ And that should be brought into these conversations.”
Abbot’s comments echoed concerns raised by the CLF in its lawsuit. The group’s lead attorney on the case declined to comment Monday, as did a lawyer for Harbor Towers.