The remains of East Boston wharves at twilight. Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration recently announced it was beginning a process that will lead to formal waterfront zoning changes in the neighborhood.

The Supreme Judicial Court this week handed state environmental regulators a new assignment to revamp how waterfront developments are reviewed and approved, potentially affecting zoning frameworks in coastal communities from Beverly to Provincetown.

In the short term, owners of properties located in municipal harbor plan areas could face delays until the state updates its regulations to conform with the SJC ruling.

“If you’re going in for an amendment of a [Chapter 91] license or a renewal, you would have a problem there,” said Victor Baltera, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP. “If somebody has a license for a building that’s 100 feet [tall] where the normal standard is 55 feet, when they renew that license, I think DEP can no longer waive the 55-foot standard.”

Municipal harbor plans – proposed by local communities and approved by the state under a process that dates back over 30 years – enable developers build taller and denser waterfront projects in exchange for public benefits. State law typically limits coastal projects to modest size to preserve public access to the waterfront.

Communities that still enforce stricter zoning standards than the state regulations would not be affected by this week’s ruling, Baltera predicted.

The SJC this week upheld the dismissal of Boston’s downtown waterfront municipal harbor plan, which would have rezoned 42 acres including the sites of the proposed Pinnacle and Hook Wharf towers on East India Row and Atlantic Avenue. The ruling centered on the document’s approval by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, a power that justices stated is reserved for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Since mid-2021, after a lower court made a similar ruling, the DEP has been proposing new MHP regulations that would address the deficiencies identified by the court. Approval of the draft regulations has been on hold pending the outcome of the SJC review.

Communities with existing MHPs include Beverly, Boston, Chatham, Chelsea, Cohasset, Edgartown, Everett, Gloucester, Hull, Lynn, Nantucket, New Bedford/Fairhaven, Provincetown and Salem.

Chapter 91 licenses that govern specific properties within an MHP zone typically expire after 30 years and are renewable for an additional 30 years.

SJC Ruling Could Sidetrack Coastal Projects

by Steve Adams time to read: 1 min