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State’s high court orders a re-do of downtown harbor plan

SJC upholds ruling that threw out the long-debated zoning plan for Boston’s downtown waterfront

City officials will likely re-write zoning rules for a large swath of the downtown Boston waterfront after the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lawsuit striking down a plan crafted in 2018.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The state’s highest court on Tuesday upheld a ruling striking down a waterfront development plan in downtown Boston, sending the controversial plan back to the drawing board.

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously agreed with Suffolk Superior Court judge Brian Davis’ decision last April that state officials have long approved municipal harbor plans in an improper fashion — by simply having the state environmental secretary sign off on them instead of full review by the Department of Environmental Protection, as is spelled out in state law.

It’s a narrow ruling with broad implications.

Davis’ decision last April — along with a new mayor in Boston City Hall — effectively torpedoed the city’s 42-acre downtown municipal harbor plan, which allowed a long-debated 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage. It also cast legal uncertainty on 17 other municipal harbor plans around the state that had been approved in similar fashion, everywhere from Gloucester to New Bedford.

Even as it launched the process of re-approving those plans in the legally-proscribed way — with public review by DEP — the Baker administration challenged Davis’ ruling in court hoping to reinstate them. In Tuesday’s ruling, the seven judges of the SJC denied that request, saying approval by the environmental secretary amounted to an “unlawful delegation” of DEP’s authority. In a footnote, it allowed the other plans to stand as-is, noting the window of time in which they are allowed to be challenged has expired.

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Critics of the Harbor Garage tower, who initially brought the lawsuit, cheered the ruling and said it was a clear victory for better planning along Boston Harbor and other parts of the coastline, which state law for centuries has viewed as protected public space.

“As we’ve been saying for years, the state’s MHP process is fundamentally flawed,” said Deanna Moran, Interim Vice President of Healthy and Resilient Communities at CLF. “The developer-driven Downtown MHP would have resulted in less public access to one of the city’s greatest treasures – Boston Harbor. Today’s ruling makes it clear that it’s time to center waterfront planning on public access and community input, not developer profits.”

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Likewise, the New England Aquarium, which neighbors the Boston Harbor Garage and has long sparred with developer Don Chiofaro over his plans there, hailed the decision.

“Together, we can now create a downtown waterfront for all that is accessible, inclusive, and climate resilient,” said CEO Vikki Spruill.

Baker administration spokespeople had no immediate comment on the decision, or on the status of redrafting the existing municipal harbor plan. Either way, it is likely a moot point. Last year, in the wake of Davis’ ruling, then-acting-mayor Kim Janey said she would withdraw the downtown plan, which had been crafted under Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

In February, in one of her first big moves on the development front, newly-elected Mayor Michelle Wu said a new downtown plan would take a back seat to writing a waterfront development plan for East Boston — which faces increasing pressure both from housing costs and climate change.


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.