When does parochial politics become blatant discrimination? When does old fashioned NIMBYism have to be called out for the harm it can do?
Well, it appears the City of Quincy and most of its elected officials are about to find out.
The long-running feud between Boston and Quincy over reconstruction of the Long Island Bridge — and with it the possible use of the island for a recovery and treatment center — has become the subject of a civil rights investigation launched by US Attorney Rachael Rollins earlier this month.
Only Quincy is under a microscope now. But local officials across the state — many of whom are all too accustomed to trotting out disingenuous environmental or traffic excuses to thwart projects that would serve marginalized populations — ought to start sweating.
Rollins’s probe seeks to determine if Quincy’s ongoing efforts to prevent rebuilding of the bridge, which is accessible only via a road that runs through the city’s Squantum section, is really just an effort to prevent the island’s use as an addiction recovery center. If so, that puts those city officials at risk of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which, as she noted in her May 12 letter to Mayor Thomas Koch, covers people with substance use disorder.
It may be a novel approach to what is essentially a land-use dispute — one now before the state Supreme Judicial Court — but it certainly got the attention of Quincy officials, who will be required to produce a boatload of records for federal civil rights lawyers to pore through to determine if traffic woes and environmental concerns are truly at the heart of the matter.
For decades, Boston maintained facilities on the island that offered shelter to more than 700 homeless people and recovery programs for 225 others, until 2014, when the bridge was deemed unsafe and eventually torn down, in 2015, leaving the city and private agencies to scramble to find shelter beds. But Squantum residents had long complained about the buses of homeless people coming and going along with the cars of workers who served that community on the island.
When Boston Mayor Marty Walsh proposed that the bridge be rebuilt, at a cost of around $100 million, Quincy officials shifted their complaints — and their legal actions — into high gear.
It’s those actions that Rollins and her civil rights team are now focusing on.
Under the authority granted by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Rollins wrote, “We are investigating the City of Quincy’s various efforts regarding the reconstruction of the Long Island Bridge. This includes, but is not limited to, the Quincy Conservation Commission’s denial of an order of conditions for rebuilding the bridge, the Quincy City Council’s enactment of new permitting requirements for bridges, and the Quincy City Council’s enactment of restrictions on vehicular access to Moon Island [which sits in the harbor between Long Island and the mainland].”
Rollins gave the city 30 days to produce a variety of documents, including any related to the Conservation Commission’s Sept. 25, 2018, refusal to give Boston an environmental permit essential to work on wetlands. She also demanded the city turn over e-mails, text messages, voicemails, and any communications relative to the bridge involving the mayor, his chief of staff, the entire city council, and conservation commissioners.
The point is, of course, to see if this legal onslaught was driven not by environmental concerns but by who would be passing through scenic Squantum en route to a recovery center — and whether that discussion might have been different had a developer proposed, say, a Marina Bay-like development on the island.
Whether to actually rebuild the bridge is a separate discussion from whether Quincy’s tactics ought to be tolerated. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said as recently as last week that she is still reviewing “the possibilities” of the Long Island site for treatment and possible low-threshold housing as part of the long-term solution to housing those with substance use disorder. Meanwhile, the city has committed to continue to repair and “stabilize” the aging buildings that remain there.
Of course, rebuilding the bridge remains a costly venture — and one that would take considerable time to complete. Ferry service to the island is also being investigated as a possible interim solution.
The point isn’t whether Long Island is the best possible site for a recovery center, but whether such facilities ought to be held hostage by public officials bent on keeping their streets and their neighborhoods off-limits to anyone who isn’t them. Plenty of homeless shelters, drug treatment centers, and affordable housing projects in Massachusetts have faced the same kind of opposition as the bridge, for equally dubious reasons.
In taking on Quincy officials, Rachael Rollins has provided a new twist to a very old story. But she has picked a fight well worth fighting and, if she wins it, the precedent could resonate across a state where NIMBY attitudes have held too much sway for too long.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.