By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- A top House lawmaker on Monday said the effort to redevelop the decommissioned South Weymouth Naval Air Station, one of the state's biggest economic development projects south of Boston, will be able to more easily move forward under legislation getting a swift and sudden push on Beacon Hill.
"We're turning a huge corner both in the economy and in this project," said Rep. Ronald Mariano, the House majority leader and a Quincy Democrat who represents part of Weymouth.
Mariano filed the bill last week with Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth).
The Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies on Monday held a public hearing on the bill, which picked up support from some local officials.
>>> For audio of the full hearing, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/gsp/default.aspx?moid=10659 <<<
The legislation (H 4315) sidelines the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corporation, an embattled agency created by the Legislature that lawmakers say has failed to quickly move the project forward.
The legislation proposes that the three South Shore towns that surround the 1,400-acre property take over municipal services such as public safety and education from the development corporation and receive property tax revenue from the redevelopment in exchange.
The bill will shift revenues to the towns of Weymouth, Rockland and Abington, and end several disputes over who supplies services for the development, known as SouthField, which is "basically the size of a whole new town," according to Mariano.
The bill would expand the number of people on the renamed SouthField Redevelopment Authority's board to nine from the five currently on the Tri-Town agency's board, and change the agency from a government entity to a redevelopment authority with less power.
The Patrick administration did not submit testimony and a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance said it is "currently reviewing the bill." Spokeswoman Alex Zaroulis said the administration will work with the Legislature "to come to a resolution."
Kevin Donovan, the CEO of Tri-Town, said he opposes the legislation and blamed the economy for the project's slow progress.
Proponents of the legislation are "cherry-picking the arguments in their favor," he told the News Service.
SouthField has 600 people living there now, Donovan said. "There was nothing happening here when I got here in 2009," he added.
Donovan submitted testimony to the committee saying the private developer in charge of redeveloping SouthField, Starwood, is asking the Legislature, through the bill, to "amend the current law to the specific exclusion of the people's right to vote and how those impacts and governance affect their sovereign rights."
"To date not one vote of the legislative bodies of the three towns has been conducted on these proposed changes as is currently mandated by state statute," he said.
Weymouth Mayor Susan Kay said the town council has held over 40 hours of meetings and she has hosted public forums on the topic.
Kay told the committee that the bill "may not be perfect." But, she added, "I believe it fairly and adequately balances the risks and rewards for the residents of Weymouth."
Kay said the town is working with Starwood on a mitigation agreement that should be completed in the next few days, and asked lawmakers not to advance the bill until that process is complete.
Auditor Suzanne Bump, whose office issued a May 2013 report critical of Tri-Town, testified in support of the legislation, saying the agency was unable to put in place a financial plan to move the project forward.
Bump, who grew up in nearby Whitman, acknowledged that the economy played a large role in SouthField's slow progress, but she added that the Tri-Town board does not have the necessary expertise.
Jeffrey Wall, a Weymouth representative on the Tri-Town board, said he supports parts of the legislation.
"Changes need to take place," Wall said. "I understand that."
But he added that he is concerned about SouthField residents possibly seeing two tax rates under the bill: the Weymouth residential tax rate and a tax rate specific to SouthField.
Peter Forman, president of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce and a former House minority leader, said SouthField residents would pay a general property tax and then an extra tax for services specific to the SouthField development, which will decrease over time.
The bill also picked up the support of the largest single investor in SouthField, John Corcoran and Company.
Corcoran purchased land in May 2010 from LNR Property Corp., the original developer that was purchased by Starwood, and built 226 apartments and 8,000 square feet of retail space at a cost of $43 million, according to Richard High, Corcoran's president. In May 2013, Corcoran built an additional 72 apartment homes, at a cost of $18 million.
But they had a "difficult and negative" experience, High said, including high building permit fees and water and sewer rates.
He said Corcoran is willing to invest another $40 million to $60 million, but cannot attract private capital to finance the investment until the project's problems are resolved. The bill would allow for a "mid-course correction" and "unleash a new enthusiasm" from the private investment world, High said.
The unfinished east-west parkway, named after former Congressman Bill Delahunt and seeking to connect Route 3 to Route 18, is another issue. The state has spent $40 million so far to build the parkway, but it is not yet connected to Route 18.
"At the moment, we have a road to nowhere," High said.
Separately, Starwood will spend $40 million to build the water and sewer infrastructure for the SouthField area, which bill proponents said Tri-Town was originally tasked with doing and failed.
Forman, the South Shore Chamber of Commerce president, told lawmakers the SouthField project will provide a boost to the South Shore's economy, which has been largely a "consumption economy based on people who live there."
The project will provide housing that will expand the region's economic base to more businesses that employ residents, he added.
"So you have confidence that if you build it, they will come," said Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat and vice chair of the Economic Development Committee.
"Absolutely," Forman responded.