Judge Throws Out Downtown Boston Harbor Development Plan

CLF prevails in lawsuit to protect public access to waterfront

The Boston skyline as seen from Boston Harbor. Photo: Jerry Monkman

April 2, 2021 (BOSTON, MA) – In a win for public access to Boston Harbor, a Superior Court judge has ruled against the state of Massachusetts in a lawsuit regarding the Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan for Boston. Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) sued in 2018 after officials ignored decades-old rules governing public waterfront access in their approval of Boston’s plan.

“Public access to Boston’s beautiful waterfront won today,” said Peter Shelley, Senior Counsel at CLF. “State officials acted unlawfully in coming up with the Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan and handed private developers a free pass to create new rules to benefit themselves. The judge saw right through this effort and affirmed that only the state’s Department of Environmental Protection can make decisions that protect the public’s centuries-old right to access the water and waterfront.”

The state’s municipal harbor planning process unlawfully ousted the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection as the exclusive agency for determining how to balance public and private rights on the waterfront, making those decisions political rather than regulatory. Private developers took advantage of that illegal process to develop their own development rules that DEP could then not overrule.

Massachusetts DEP will now have to revise its tidelands regulations to reflect the judge’s ruling that it has exclusive, final authority over all development proposed for on tidelands.

The public’s right to access waterfront areas has been protected under Massachusetts law and DEP is the only trustee authorized to protect and advance those public rights. Recently, the planning process for waterfront development has arbitrarily abandoned DEP’s development principles that have been in place since 1990, particularly that waterfront buildings step down in height and provide meaningful public open space.

Today’s ruling can be found here.

CLF experts are available for further comment.