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New Tool Calculates Value of Public Benefits in Waterfront Projects

Residents have never had a model or formula to estimate the value of public benefits – until now.

As a Massachusetts resident, you have the legal right to access and use waterfront areas called “tidelands.” That right is so important that a state law – the Public Waterfront Act, also known as Chapter 91 – dictates how those waterfront areas can be used for real estate development. The law states the maximum height and overall dimensions of new buildings. It also says how much public open space a development must have and the publicly accessible uses it must include.

But what happens when a developer wants to go bigger or build beyond those legal requirements? What if their plans limit public waterfront access more than the law permits?

When state authorities grant exceptions to the law, developers must make up for any loss of public access. This usually occurs through financial compensation to the community, called “mitigation.” The intent is for that compensation to equal the value of the lost public access. However, no consistent method exists for agreeing on that value – and by extension, the payment to the community. Until now.

With support from our partners, CLF has developed an online calculator that will assess the value of public access. The calculator will help provide greater transparency when balancing waterfront development and the public’s access rights.

Residents Deserve Greater Transparency and Consistency in Waterfront Projects

Every waterfront development should be held to the same fair and transparent standards when making up for the loss of public access. However, current methods for assessing the value of that lost access have lacked transparency. Mitigation payments have been negotiated inconsistently with developers site by site.

That’s why CLF and our partners developed the Massachusetts Tidelands Development Calculator. The online tool was created with HR&A Advisors with funding from the Barr Foundation. The calculator provides the public with market information about the monetary value that developers capture by departing from Chapter 91 requirements.

For instance, the online tool can determine the additional private value captured by a developer that builds to 150 feet high instead of 55 feet. Or that provides 30% open space on the site instead of the legally required 50%. The calculator then suggests using this value to estimate the appropriate compensation to the public in the form of a mitigation payment.

Having the same market information available to developers, city governments, and the public helps level the playing field and increases transparency about financial trade-offs. It also promotes consistent expectations for mitigation payments, which can reduce uncertainty in the project review and permitting processes.

As a result, the tidelands calculator not only benefits the public – who can better understand the value of the trade-offs made – but also the development community.

Everyone should pay their fair share – no more, no less.

With a deeper understanding of the value of trade-offs, developers, city leaders, and residents can make more informed decisions about new waterfront development. Developers may even find it more cost-effective to meet Chapter 91 requirements. They also may decide to propose ways to offset the loss of public access onsite, which could eliminate the need for a mitigation payment altogether. By allowing the public to engage in informed discussions about private gains and public trade-offs, the Massachusetts Tidelands Development Calculator can help lead to waterfront development that truly prioritizes the needs of the public.

Learn more about Chapter 91 and the public’s rights to the waterfront by downloading CLF's "People’s Guide to the Public Waterfront Act.”

Explore the Massachusetts Tideland Development Calculator

This blog post was originally published by Conservation Law Foundation

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Deanna Moran

Guest Author Director of Environmental Planning Conservation Law Foundation