New rules aimed at biomedical companies

City hopes to lure and oversee firms

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / May 31, 2009
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Woburn is seeking to attract companies in the growing biomedical field while also ensuring their operations do not pose any risk to city residents, through two recent measures approved by the City Council.

One revises a zoning ordinance to allow some biomedical facilities to locate in the city's industrial and office park areas. Only facilities posing a relatively low safety risk to the public - those with a biosafety rating of 1 or 2 - would be allowed. Biomedical facilities are rated on a risk scale of 1 to 4.

The other measure is an ordinance amendment that reestablishes a biomedical oversight committee responsible for issuing annual permits to and monitoring the activities of biomedical operators in the city.

"What we've done is to make sure that Woburn is able to be attractive to biomedical facilities that are of a safe variety in the community. Doing that opens us up for positive growth in the future," said Edmund Tarallo, the city's planning director.

The new measures, recommended by the Planning Board, revamp previous procedures the city had in place for regulating biomedical firms, which engage in a variety of research into ways to prevent and treat illnesses.

Under the ordinance creating the new oversight committee, biomedical facilities are defined as "any facility or research laboratory engaged in the use of recombinant DNA, live animals for testing, the use of potentially infectious cell lines, or infectious material."

The oversight committee would consist of the city's health agent and two residents well-versed in "recombinant DNA and the federal regulations that apply to it."

In 1995, Woburn established a zoning ordinance on siting of biomedical facilities, and a separate ordinance setting up a biomedical oversight committee.

Starting then, firms seeking to do biomedical research had to obtain both a special permit from the City Council and a permit from the oversight committee. Tarallo said that system contin ued until 2007, when councilors eliminated the committee.

Until passage of recent measures, a special permit was still required, but there was no oversight panel or clear rules for biomedical operators, he said.

With the changes, the newly established oversight panel alone is responsible for approving biomedical facilities - the requirement to obtain a special permit from the City Council has been dropped - and for ensuring they are being run safely.

"We've now clarified for those people who want to come into the community exactly where to go and how. We believe it's making us simpler and more user-friendly" for biomedical firms, Tarallo said.

At the same time, he said the city has enhanced the safety of residents by prohibiting Level 3 and 4 facilities from locating in the city. And it has set up a tighter oversight system that requires biomedical operators to annually renew their permits, providing documentation that they have proper safety controls in place.

Tarallo said the intent is to ensure that the labs are conducting their work "in a way in which the community approves and feels comfortable with and in a location it feels comfortable with."

The effort to establish the new rules was spurred by a proposal earlier this year by Cummings Properties to allow biomedical research among other additional uses within its office building on Sylvan Road, according to Tarallo. After residents expressed concerns about biomedical use at that location, councilors asked the Planning Board to develop a clearer system for evaluating biomedical proposals, he said.

"We are doing this to establish a comfort levels with residents around the different industrial" areas, said Ward 6 Alderman Michael Raymond, who sponsored the new rules.

He said an important task of the committee will be to clearly define what constitutes biosafety levels 1 and 2.

Tarallo said the city is not aware of any Woburn biomedical firms operating with a biosafety rating of 3 or 4. He said such a firm would be limited to levels 1 and 2 in Woburn.

Peter Abair, director of economic development for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, offered a mixed assessment of Woburn's new rules.

Clear rules will be helpful to companies considering Woburn, Abair said. He said allowing biomedical companies to locate in areas by right is also a plus for the industry, as is the creation of an oversight committee.

Abair said, however, requiring companies to renew permits annually seems "a bit excessive."