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How are Development Impacts Identified?

When the scale or nature of the project indicates that there may be significant traffic impacts to the surrounding transportation network and facilities, the potential type and scale of impacts need to be identified. These impacts are identified at the state and municipal levels, and how a development’s effect on transportation is determined.

At the State Level

The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) is a uniform system of environmental impact review to reduce the potential for harm to the environment from certain development, construction or other projects. MEPA was established as a state law in the late 1970s (MEPA Regulations, 301 CMR 11.00).

The intent of MEPA review is to inform project proponents and state agencies of potential adverse environmental impacts while a proposal is still in the planning stages. The private proponent identifies required state agency actions and describes the means by which the proposal complies with applicable regulatory standards and requirements. The private proponent and all relevant state agencies are required to identify any aspects of the proposal that require additional description or analysis prior to completion of the agency action, most commonly the issuance of a certificate and Section 61 Findings, which are described below.

MEPA provides a state regulatory framework primarily aimed at accomplishing two goals:

  1. Ensure that public and private agencies participating in projects are aware of their potential environmental impacts before taking action, including permitting and financial assistance.
  2. Ensure that prior to taking action with respect to projects, state agencies should “use all practicable means and measures to minimize damage to the environment.”

MEPA also requires studying alternatives to the proposed project and developing enforceable mitigation commitments, which will become permit conditions for the project.

MEPA Review Thresholds

According to MEPA Regulations Section 11.03: Review Thresholds, a MEPA review is required when one or more review thresholds are met or exceeded and the subject matter of at least one review threshold is within MEPA jurisdiction. Review thresholds identify categories of projects that are likely to cause “Damage to the Environment.” There are two tiers of MEPA thresholds:

  1. ENF (Environmental Notification Form) and an EIR (Environmental Impact Report)
  2. ENF and other MEPA review if required by the Secretary

The review thresholds fall into twelve categories, of which Transportation is one. For example, an ENF and an EIR is required if a project proposes the construction of 1,000 or more new parking spaces at a single location. An ENF and other MEPA review are required if a project proposes the construction of 300 or more new parking spaces at a single location.

Section 61 Findings

Section 61 Findings require state agencies and authorities to review, evaluate and determine the impacts on the natural environment of all projects or activities requiring permits issued by the state. Findings are issued describing the environmental impacts, if any. All feasible measures that have been taken by the project proponent to avoid or minimize these impacts are certified. Section 61 is a requirement of Massachusetts General Laws (Chapter 30, Section 61. M.G.L. c.30, s.61).

Although Section 61 Findings provide a “template” for permit conditions, MEPA is not responsible for issuing permits. Participating state agencies are responsible for issuing permits (e.g., Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division issues Highway Access Permits).  To enforce mitigation requirements, a municipality can link their permit requirements with that of state agencies. For more information regarding monitoring and enforcement, go to How is Development Mitigation Monitored and Enforced? (hyperlink)

Additional MEPA Resources

At the Municipal Level

Cities and towns have tools that help to identify potential development impacts. Primary among these tools are a Master Plan and Community Development Plan.

Master Plans and Community Development Plans

Master Plans and Community Development Plans document a municipality’s existing conditions, issues, and projects. Both are good resources that document a municipality’s present condition and provide guidance for accomplishing community visions and intentions through public investments, land use regulations and other programs. More specifically, these plans assess the long-term capital project requirements of a municipality.

Chapter 41: Section 81D of Massachusetts General Laws requires a planning board established in any city or town to prepare a Master Plan. The Master Plan is comprised of several elements, including a Goals and Policies Statement, a Land Use Element, a Housing Element and an Open Space and Recreation Element.

Most relevant to assessing possible development impacts are the Circulation Element and the Implementation Program Element. The Circulation Element provides an inventory of existing and proposed circulation and transportation systems. Information from this element feeds into the Implementation Element, which defines and schedules the specific municipal actions necessary to achieve the objectives of each element in the plan. As new developments occur, these two elements can assist the municipality in making choices about how projects should be implemented, financed, and phased over time.

In response to an increasing shortage of housing across Massachusetts, both for individuals and in particular families with low, moderate, and middle-incomes, Executive Order 418 (EO418) was enacted in 2000. Through EO418, planning funds were offered to all Massachusetts communities to help them develop Community Development Plans that would identify future opportunities while linking housing with economic development, transportation, open space, and resource protection.

The transportation component of the Community Development Plans addressed the location and description of transportation improvements, including matters of safety, access, congestion and transit, intermodal connections and environmental considerations. Communities were required to discuss regional transportation issues, define regional transportation problems, and develop recommendations to address these problems. Although Community Development Plans are no longer being developed, they can provide a context for assessing how new development could impact the local and regional transportation system and for identifying mitigations.

The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development maintains background information on Executive Order 418 and a list of Community Development Plans that have been submitted by Massachusetts municipalities.