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Boston construction moratorium indefinite now due to coronavirus

The move comes even as Gov. Charlie Baker encourages development to continue statewide; Cambridge and Somerville joined Boston, though, in reiterating bans

A locked chain around a chain-linked fence surrounding a construction site. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston’s temporary construction moratorium is now indefinite, Mayor Marty Walsh announced on March 25. The two-week ban put in place March 17 to stem the spread of novel coronavirus covers all projects that the city permitted.

Walsh’s move came the same day that Gov. Charlie Baker’s office reiterated its stance that construction throughout Massachusetts should continue, virus or not. In a letter from Baker’s chief legal counsel to municipal leaders, the governor’s office asked that all state officials get on the same page as far as combating coronavirus. That included construction—especially of house, which the state famously needs more of.

“The economic disruption and interruption in critical services and functions that could result from halting construction projects abruptly would be felt statewide and not simply in the locality where a particular project sits,” the letter read. “For these reasons, construction projects should continue as long as they observe social distancing protocols and can continue to operate safely.”

Walsh declined to go along. Leaders in Cambridge and Somerville quickly joined him March 25, saying that their own construction moratoriums would continue. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said on Twitter that “it’s just not safe” to have projects continue right now. Curtatone’s message included a tweet from state Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge, who accused Baker of bowing to pressure from a construction lobby.

Boston had been the first major U.S. city to institute such a stoppage due to coronavirus. But it came with a big catch. It covered—and continues to cover—only projects that the city itself green-lighted. That’s quite a few projects, including everything from condos to apartments to lab space to hotels, but it does not cover several developments on state-vetted or -owned sites and properties within Boston.

Those can continue, and are continuing, at the discretion of individual developers and contractors—and under exemptions that Baker spelled out in his March 23 order closing all nonessential businesses in Massachusetts until April 7 due to the virus. Construction workers of various trades were exempted from the ban.

Baker’s recent decisions re: construction also raise the specter of legal confrontation between developers and cities. Some of the former might cite the state directive on allowing construction amid coronavirus in challenging the municipal moratoriums. Stay tuned.