Eric Batcho, Rappaport Fellow in Law and Public Policy, Summer 2008
by Jane Whitehead
Eric Batcho’s commute is a five-minute walk from his Beacon Hill apartment to the Tip O’Neil Federal Building. Since August 2010 he has worked there as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.)
In Batcho’s ideal world, short, car-free commutes would be the norm. From the time he entered the Master’s Program in Urban Planning at Harvard Design School, to his graduation from Boston College Law School in 2010, he has been intrigued by policies and regulations that shape the built environment, and by learning how they can create “a livable environment more suited to pedestrians and bikes.” With the support of a Rappaport Fellowship in Law and Public Policy from May-August 2008, between his first and second years in law school, he was able to explore the world of land use and permitting issues as an intern at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP.)
For Batcho, 28, his progression from urban planning to law was organic. “I wanted to see results rather than just theoretical planning,” he said, admitting that he found the urban planner’s twenty to thirty year time horizon “a little bit frustrating.” While he was still at Harvard Design School, a multidisciplinary class project for a development on 125th Street in Harlem, New York City, confirmed his instincts: “I wanted to explore the legal piece more,” he said. “I wanted to be the person in the team who could ask for the legal changes we needed to implement our plan.”
The DEP summer internship helped him become that person, as he had the opportunity to work on a land use takings case relating to a beachfront property on Plum Island, in Newbury, Mass. The homeowner involved claimed that DEP wetlands protection regulations that prevented him building on part of his land amounted to a regulatory taking. Batcho had “a great time researching all the case law on the subject,” trawling through files at the Essex County Registry of Deeds, in Salem, Mass., and visiting the property, finding material to support the DEP case that its regulation did not constitute a regulatory taking.
The case was compelling to Batcho for a couple of reasons. Issues of eminent domain, and its subset, regulatory takings, are always on the radar of urban planners, so he was intrigued to have a ringside view of “how policy played out in the legal field.” The case was also a lesson in balancing two perspectives. “At that time I was transitioning from the urban planning perspective – thinking what would be best on a grand scale – to the legal perspective, when you realize the facts of each case are different,” he said.
The Rappaport Fellows became “like a family,” said Batcho. “We were all struggling with the same issues,” he said, “and we supported each other through that process.” Field trips like a tour of the Seaport District with attorney Jay Wickersham, who chaired the state’s review of Boston’s Municipal Harbor Plan for the South Boston waterfront, brought to life the law’s impact on the built environment in a fast-changing part of the city. And as Batcho and his contemporaries entered their second year of law school, he said, “It was great to know people who had the same ideas about the importance of government and public policy in the legal field.”
The internship at DEP showed Batcho that government work suited him, and through Rappaport connections he worked for the Boston Redevelopment Authority for a semester in his third year of law school. One project close to his heart was researching legal issues relating to bicycle sharing schemes, just as the city was negotiating with potential partners to set up what became the New Balance Hubway bike-sharing initiative, launched in July 2011. “I believe in protecting the environment and having a better experience in the city as a pedestrian and cyclist,” said Batcho, “and bike sharing is great on both levels.”
Batcho’s current job with HUD gives him a new viewpoint, as a federal government employee of an agency with a major role in shaping the face of the nation’s cities. He’s putting his experience in state and local government, real estate and land use law to work in housing discrimination cases, pursuing complaints from New England residents who feel they have been discriminated against, whether by private landlords or public local housing authorities. Discrimination, no less than zoning and land use regulations, can impact the environment, he said, in that it determines where people live and who they live with. In enforcing fair housing laws and ensuring people have access to housing, “I feel like I’m really helping people who need it most,” he said.
Find out more about the Rappaport Fellowship in Law and Public Policy.