The Community Empowerment Act:

Having a Hand in the Future of Your Neighborhood

by Steven Orzack

 
The destruction of a marsh, the construction of a strip-mall, the
opening of a "super store," the eviction of tenants, and the razing of
historical buildings are frequent events in communities across the
nation. Such events have much in common for one simple reason: all of
them erode the sense of community that is an integral part of most
people's lives.
	The Community Empowerment Act enables concerned citizens in
cities and towns across the Commonwealth to play an active part in the
future of their communities. It is simply a tool kit for local
decision making that allows a city or town to declare an emergency
when it or a community within it faces conditions that threaten the
community's stability and cohesion, or the health, safety, and
convenience of its residents. Specific conditions that could trigger
an emergency are an expansion of tax-exempt institutions that already
occupy a substantial part of the community, speculative development of
farm lands or natural lands, more than 7.5% annual expansion of the
housing stock, displacement of renter households by evictions and rent
increases, loss of federal and state financial support for housing
low-income families, loss of businesses that undermines the viability
of a town center, and loss of places vital to the historical
continuity of a community.
	If an emergency is declared by the governing body of a city or
town, the consequences depend on the type of threat involved. In the
case of a threat to historical buildings, the city or town could
require that removal permits be obtained before a structure is
converted to some other use. If the threat is to farm lands or to
wetlands, the city or town could limit the number of building permits
granted for construction on undeveloped lots in a given time
period. If there is a threat to the tenant households within the
community, the city or town could allow only just-cause evictions or
limit rent increases as long as they are sufficient to meet costs
incurred by the landlord.
	The Community Empowerment Act also changes two state laws. The
first change requires a majority vote of a city or town's governing
body to adopt rules concerning condominium conversions. The other
change requires that contested changes in local zoning ordinances only
need approval of 2/3 of the local council members in order to be
adopted. In both instances, the net effect is to allow local residents
to have increased say in the character of their neighborhoods and
communities.
	Is this act much ado about nothing? After all, save for the
two changes in regard to the rules governing condominium conversions
and changes to zoning ordinances, state laws will be the same after it
is passed by the voters in November 1996-but much will be
changed. What will be different is that citizens of the Commonwealth,
with passage of the Act, will have reaffirmed their commitment to
control of development by and for the community. In this era of
concern over intrusive government regulations and bureaucracy, the
Community Empowerment Act embodies the desires of individuals to
exercise their rights and responsibilities in regard to governing
their communities and to control the character of their lives.
	The Community Empowerment Act was developed by a diverse group
of citizens who have formed Political Action for Community Empowerment
(P.A.C.E.), in order to win passage of this Act in the November 1996
general election. The Act has been certified by the State Attorney
General as suitable for inclusion on the ballot and P.A.C.E. is now
collecting the necessary signatures. P.A.C.E. welcomes contributions
and volunteers; you can reach them at P.A.C.E, P.O. Box 440319,
Somerville, MA. 02144 or at (617) 499-7775.
	Passage of the Community Empowerment Act will not be easy,
especially against opponents who mistrust the people and have a great
deal to gain from a divided, ignorant electorate. In the coming
months, as this Act is debated, remember that the question is simple,
"Who decides the future of your community?" If you believe that you
and your neighbors should have an important say in that future, the
Community Empowerment Act deserves your strong support.

More on the CEA

The Community Empowerment Act (CEA) was created by a diverse group of
citizens from throughout the Commonwealth who are members of Political
Action for Community Empowerment (PACE). The CEA expands the powers of
cities and towns to preserve their local character when it is
threatened by specific emergency conditions such as speculative land
development, destruction of historical buildings, elimination of
low-income housing, and displacement of tenants. This Act was recently
certified by the State Attorney General as being suitable for
inclusion on the state-wide ballot in November 19965. Inclusion
requires that approximately 65,000 signatures of registered voters be
collected in the period from now until November 1995. For more
information about how you can help, please contact P.A.C.E, P. O. Box
440319, Somerville, MA. 02144 or at (617) 499-7775.

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