By James Vaznis, Globe Staff | January 17, 2008
About a half-dozen communities south of Boston, eager to bolster their tax bases with new businesses, are promising to act within 180 days on select developers' requests for construction permits. Should time run out, developers will get the permits automatically.
That so-called fast-track approach is a far cry from business as usual. Project decisions can take several years in the Bay State, and timelines are unpredictable, especially if neighborhood opposition arises.
The streamlined approach, part of a state program, aims to appease businesses, which have long complained that project approvals in Massachusetts take longer to secure than in other states, making the state less appealing for investment.
While some communities remain a bit wary, others are embracing the idea. Canton and Walpole have enacted the new approach, while state approval is pending for Brockton, Bridgewater, Randolph, and Sharon. Regional planners say Avon, Dedham, East Bridgewater, Plymouth, and Stoughton are also exploring the program's merit.
Fast-tracking is "a great proactive strategy to offset or prevent a budget crisis," said Karen O'Connell, Dedham's economic development director.
"We know for companies, time is money and a long process could chill a project. Even if you enact expedited permitting, you can still say no to a project," she added.
Communities that establish fast-track permitting don't do it for all properties, just specific sites they want developed. The program, called Chapter 43D, was signed into law in August 2006. It re stricts participation to properties already zoned for commercial or industrial use or municipally owned land. That's a sharp departure from an unpopular state program several years ago that required townwide fast-track permitting.
Enacting fast-track permitting at a local level requires approval of a town meeting or a city council. Then the application goes to the state. Statewide, 27 communities have joined, while eight more are awaiting state approval. To speed up the approval process, projects sometimes are considered by various local boards - planning, zoning, and conservation - simultaneously.
The program can lure developers to underutilized buildings or undeveloped land, as well as encourage businesses to expand in their town rather than another. Bridgewater is hoping to have an office park or warehouses built on an old farm, while Dedham officials are talking about attracting stores and a parking garage to a Dedham Square parking lot.
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