John Smolak
Partner, Smolak & Vaughan LLP
Age: 60
Industry experience: 32 years 

Suburban development is no longer a sleepy niche for an attorney specializing in land use permitting and environmental work. When Dallas-based Hillwood Investment Properties sought to develop a 4.2 million-square-foot campus including a new Amazon distribution facility in North Andover, it turned to John Smolak to usher the project through local permitting and negotiate a tax increment financing deal. His North Andover firm, Smolak & Vaughan, specializes in land use, environmental and real estate development work including a large-scale industrial development in Wrentham and a half-dozen multifamily proposals in Greater Boston.

Social media can put out a lot of misinformation about projects, unless you’re proactive at the very beginning and put facts on the table. 

Q: As suburban development activity has rebounded because of demand for life science facilities and distribution centers, do municipalities have more leverage to extract mitigation?
A: It really depends upon the municipality and the location as to leverage. You’re right on point in terms of the explosion in the ‘burbs in terms of warehouse and distribution competing with biotech and biomanufacturing, and I’d have to say that I think municipalities are responding appropriately to these offers and they could be a little bit more selective these days. When you’re dealing with a municipality, many years ago I used to think, “Maybe I’ll not do a whole lot of outreach.” And I think I’ve found that has dramatically changed in terms of my perspective, and the perspective of a client. The more outreach you do in a community and the more you’re an open book, you get better treatment and results. 

Q: What was the key to building support for Hillwood’s redevelopment of the former Lucent Technologies campus?
A: The reaction from the town was positive. When Amazon was looking for a location for HQ2, a number of the municipalities in the area came together to help pitch the North Andover site. Whether it was Amazon or developers for Amazon, it came onto the radar screen because of that, I think, and years before this project came to fruition, that was particularly helpful. The town was proactive in getting their site ready for something to happen there.  

The site was originally called Western Electric and was the economic engine for the entire region, employing 12,000 people at one point. Very few developers can take on a project of that size. Some of the [industrial] developers look for nothing less than 1 million square feet, which is very rare in Massachusetts, and others are looking for 100,000 to 200,000 square feet. You’re going to see a lot more in the in-between space for the warehouse and distribution centers. Folks like Amazon have been in the forefront for so many years, and others are trying to catch up. 

 Q: How has the decline of community newspapers and the rise of social media as a source of local news affected permitting and the public’s response to proposals?
A: You’re seeing a lot of folks getting their information from social media, for better or worse. I think as a result, you’re sometimes getting a lot of misinformation unless you nip that in the bud by being proactive at the very beginning and putting the facts on the table. That plays into the philosophy of doing more outreach.   

Q: In your role representing multifamily developers, what’s your prediction on how big of a factor the Housing Choice will be in expanding availability of sites?
A: A number of communities are starting out right, but it’s still a work in progress. The communities that are reacting positively understand the situation we’re in from an economic competitiveness standpoint, and also housing needs at all income levels. Most developers don’t want to go the Chapter 40B route, but it has been generally the only game in town until recently. Most municipalities realize by working with a developer, you have a much better chance of shaping what the community wants with a conventionally zoned project. The other multifamily trend is that a lot of the retail strip malls are really hurting as a result of e-commerce. We’re seeing the introduction of multifamily into the old malls to inject some life and give them an opportunity to refresh their facilities. 

Q: What are the effects of the updated MEPA regulations on development reviews and timelines?
A: Additional amended regulations are probably going to be promulgated toward the end of the year. They were primarily driven by number one: environmental justice, and number two: climate change, both very important issues. Those are great goals to achieve and at the same time, you need to balance any regulatory amendments so you can continue to attract the quality of industry that’s been coming into the state over the past several years. 

Smolak’s Five Favorite Massachusetts Statutes 

  1. MGL c. 272, Section 86, “Stabling horses or mules on higher floors” 
  2. MGL c. 94, Section 236, “Weighers of hay” 
  3. MGL c. 2, Section 44, “Polka of the commonwealth” 
  4. MGL c. 272, Section 68, “Vagabonds” 
  5. MGL c. 129, Section 305, “Driving certain cattle on public ways” 

Correction July 6, 2022: The list of industrial projects John Smolak is currently involved with. He is involved only with a large-scale industrial development in Wrentham.

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