In the latest chapter in a protracted legal clash that could have ramifications for the local response to the still-raging opioid epidemic, the state’s highest court Monday ruled that state approval for Boston’s Long Island Bridge reconstruction plan trumps a rejection by the Quincy Conservation Commission.
At issue is the rebuilding of the bridge, which many officials and advocates view as a key step in developing a recovery campus on the island to provide a long-term solution to the city’s opioid, mental health, and homelessness crises.
The Boston-owned island once housed drug treatment programs and a homeless shelter, until the bridge connecting it to the mainland in Quincy was shut down in 2014 and later demolished. Stanchions from the old bridge structure can still be seen protruding from the harbor’s surface. The closure, which forced Boston into a yearslong scramble to identify new housing and treatment programs, is seen as a key driver for the worsening homelessness and addiction crisis in the area known as Mass. and Cass.
That part of Boston, near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, has become synonymous with the opioid crisis in the state, and conditions there have steadily deteriorated in the years since the bridge closed.
Monday’s decision marked a win for Boston in the spat that pitted the city against its southern neighbor, but the broader fight is far from over. Boston still needs approval of multiple permits to construct the span. And Quincy on Monday vowed to continue to oppose Boston’s plans.
Despite that, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration called Monday’s decision a “major victory.”
“Today’s decision will allow Boston to continue exploring the potential and opportunities on Long Island to connect our residents with substance use disorder services and housing,” said a Wu spokesman in a statement. “We look forward to collaborating with our local and state partners to ensure that every person impacted by substance use has a path to a stable recovery and housing.”
On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously validated Boston’s legal strategy. After Quincy’s Conservation Commission rejected Boston’s rebuilding plans, then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to give its own judgment under the state wetlands protection laws.
The DEP sided with Boston, and that decision overrides that of the Quincy commission, the SJC said.
As written, Quincy’s law does not “give the commission additional authority over fisheries, wildlife habitats, pollution, land under the ocean, or land containing shellfish that the DEP does not also have,” Judge David Lowy wrote in a 17-page ruling. “We conclude that the DEP order supersedes that of the commission because the commission did not rest its determination on more stringent local provisions.”
The SJC decision comes eight years after the bridge was closed due to concerns about dangerous structural weaknesses. Without access via the bridge through Quincy to the island, Boston closed the Long Island programs for the homeless and those with substance abuse disorder then operating there.
Walsh, now the nation’s labor secretary, vowed to rebuild the bridge. But the effort has met determined opposition from Quincy political leaders and neighborhood residents, particularly in the Squantum neighborhood, where officials have cited traffic concerns. Legal challenges from Quincy officials have stalled rebuilding the structure.
This spring, US Attorney Rachael Rollins launched a civil rights investigation into Quincy’s efforts to block rebuilding the bridge, saying the city’s stance may discriminate against people with addiction by preventing them from getting treatment at a recovery program Boston wants to reopen on the island.
The Quincy commission originally denied Boston’s application to rebuild the bridge in September 2018, and affirmed its denial in a September 2019 decision. Boston appealed to the state DEP, which overruled the commission’s denial.
The SJC’s ruling supported the finding by Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins that the DEP decision was legally correct.
Wu, responding to a question about the decision during an appearance on WBUR Monday morning, said the city is still “a little ways away from” a rebuild of the bridge becoming a reality.
She specifically cited the concerns of indigenous communities, who have alerted the city of sacred sites on the island, and the challenges of sprucing up buildings that have been dormant for years.
“We need to first decide and set what the plan is for services that will be offered on the island before rushing into the best mechanisms of formalizing the transportation to the island,” said Wu.
In keeping with past statements, Wu said the Long Island recovery campus is a longer-term solution for the city’s opioid and homelessness crises. She emphasized that her administration’s focus “right now is to maintain where we are with Mass. and Cass.”
In January, city crews cleared a large homeless encampment in the area, connecting scores of people who were living in the ramshackle shelters with housing and treatment programs. That same month, Wu took a boat ride to Long Island to explore the possibility of rebuilding a long-term recovery campus for people in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Christopher Walker, chief of staff to Mayor Thomas P. Koch of Quincy, acknowledged on Monday that “obviously it’s not the decision we had hoped for.” But he emphasized the city would continue to raise a myriad of environmental and structural concerns in a number of venues.
“This is not remotely a green light for a new bridge,” said Walker.
To re-build the bridge, Boston needs an array of permits. The city already has three wetlands permits in hand. Another certificate issued by state authorities to Boston is being appealed by Quincy in court. In that case, Quincy argues Boston wants to build a new bridge, while Boston maintains it is simply rebuilding the old one, said Walker. The distinction is important, as a new bridge would come with a more thorough environmental review, said Walker.
Boston also needs two other approvals from the state. Lastly, the city needs a federal permit that includes a sign-off from the Coast Guard.
Quincy, said Walker, has already contacted the Coast Guard, arguing the bridge design is outdated. Walker did not think Quincy had a viable legal appeal of the case the SJC decided on Monday.
Despite the various moving parts regarding the bridge plan, Steve Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups, hailed Monday’s decision as significant, since it pulled “all the veils off of what Quincy is trying to do.”
”It’s not an environmental case, it’s not a transportation case,” said Fox. “Quincy doesn’t want that bridge built, period.”
He added, “The really good news for Boston is that the whole environment case that they have been leaning on from the very beginning has collapsed.”
Long Island, he said, has the chance to be the site of the first municipal recovery campus in the nation.
“No one else has done this,” he said.
While Quincy continues to make environmental and structural arguments against the bridge, critics are blasting officials therefor opposing a project that has the chance to help with the region’s opioid epidemic.
On Monday, Jim Stewart, a founding steering committee member for SIFMA Now!, a group that advocates for sites for safe consumption of drugs in the state, lambasted Quincy authorities for “obstructing efforts to assist people with substance use disorder in a neighboring community.”
“They don’t care how many die from overdose, or contract injection-related infections,” said Stewart, who is the director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge. “They want to make sure nobody offers hope.”
Emma Platoff of Globe staff contributed to this report.