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.