WASHINGTON - November 16 - Massachusetts is protecting fewer acres at greater cost under Governor Mitt Romney than under his predecessors, according to agency figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). During Romney’s tenure, acreage protected took a nose dive, falling from more than 33,000 acres protected in 2001 to less than 6,900 acres in 2006 — a lower total than any year since 1991.
“By any measure, Massachusetts is losing the war on sprawl by widening margins,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former lawyer and biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), noting that, on average, 40 acres of undeveloped land are lost per day in the Commonwealth. “Under Romney, the cause of smart growth lost significant IQ points.”
Gov. Romney created the Office of Commonwealth Development (OCD) in 2003 to influence the construction decisions of both municipalities and private developers. Since the advent of OCD, however, the level of state investment in open space preservation and the amount of land protected have both dropped. In addition, the Commonwealth is now spending more per acre to protect less land, with the cost of preserving one acre rising from $3,400 in 2000 to more than $5,000 per acre in 2006.
Yesterday, ironically, EPA presented one of its five 2006 National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement to Massachusetts “for creating the” OCD. The EPA award cites the fact that OCD has “protected approximately 35,000 acres of land” over its history. While that number is accurate, the annual totals are substantially less than the land protected before OCD was created. The award citation also claims that OCD has “taken growth pressure off of natural lands and undeveloped sites.”
The controversial shift of policy embodied by OCD under Gov. Romney was to move away from permanently protecting land and instead encouraging new projects in already developed areas. The problem with that approach, land conservation advocates say, is that the unprotected land still gets developed. In addition, the diminished state investment in land preservation made it harder for private land trusts to acquire key tracts because there is less money available with which to leverage large or important purchases.
Moreover, Romney diminished the role of state environmental agencies in selecting lands for protection. As a result, some of the most environmentally sensitive lands are targeted for development while more marginal tracts are left as open space.
“With its own history of being missing-in-action on important land uses issues, EPA giving an award to Massachusetts for smart growth achievement is like a coward passing out medals for heroism,” Bennett added. “Romney’s central failing was that he substituted rhetoric for real investment and, as a consequence, future generations will be the poorer for it.”