As the state’s highest court last week gave Wellesley College the go-ahead to sell 47 acres north of its campus, a number of neighbors of the property told officials at a community meeting they are worried that traffic, safety, and the environment will worsen if the property is developed.
“We understand you have the right to sell this land, but we’re all very concerned about this,” resident Charlotte Trubiani said. “I’m concerned about the quantity and quality of the green space, about traffic and safety, and transparency. We would love to be informed as this goes on.”
Ben Hammond, the college’s vice president for finance and administration, said trustees will explore whether they should sell the so-called North 40 property, assessed at $25 million, to private developers or to the town, and will likely consider long-term leases as they make a decision “in accordance to the trustees’ strict fiduciary duties to act in the best interests of the college.”
But Hammond said Wellesley College has its own vested interest in what becomes of North 40, because the property is adjacent to a portion of its campus.
“We’re not interested in just making a quick buck,” he said, noting that the college would be a neighbor for decades to come. “This is very close to campus, which we care deeply about.”
College officials are exploring selling the North 40 property, along Weston Road, to raise money for a $365 million plan to renovate and expand existing college buildings during the next decade, Hammond said. The triangular slice of land sits just north of the college’s main campus, and is mostly used by local and college gardeners, and for passive recreation.
But town officials said the land could potentially be developed into a new neighborhood of 80 to 100 single-family homes. They have already formed a committee to study whether the town should buy the property for open space, a new school, or another yet-to-be-determined purpose.
The North 40 parcel was donated to the college 140 years ago with the caveat that the college use it only for educational purposes, and prohibiting college officials from selling the land or leasing it for more than seven years at a time, Hammond said.
But last week the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Wellesley College could sell the property despite the original restriction. The favorable court ruling was the first step Wellesley College needed to dispose of the land.
“We were quite surprised by the timing of the Supreme Judicial Court,” Hammond said Tuesday to a room packed with more than 150 Wellesley residents, noting that the college had expected the legal process to continue into the summer. He said it was “awkward” that the meeting came on the heels of the court decision, since Wellesley College trustees were still processing the information and did not have many answers about what happens next.
“Although the college is pleased with the court’s decision, we wish to emphasize that no decisions have been made regarding the future of the North 40,” Hammond said.
Neighbors of the property were not the only local residents with worries. When one dog-walker asked how many other residents take their pups to play at the property, about half of the audience members raised a hand. The response led to an offer from Hammond to allow residents to use the sprawling Wellesley College campus for dog-walking.
“We see ourselves as part of this community,” he said. “We want to be a good neighbor.”
Hammond said the last town assessment valued the parcel at around $25 million. He also said a new appraisal would likely fetch a different amount, though he would not predict whether it would be more or less.
“It’s impossible to know how much until it’s done,” he said.
Environmental advocates said they still worry about possible development of the land, even though Hammond said the college plans to help find new space for gardening groups. An older resident said she watched Wellesley’s green spaces disappear as a concrete suburbia took form, and lamented that Wellesley College’s large chunk of open land would likely follow suit.
Gardeners who have plots on North 40 — many of whom belong to the Weston Road Garden Club — said widespread development on the parcel would do damage greater than simply eliminating their planting space.
“I’m concerned about losing the green space,” said Margaret Petrovich. “This has a pine forest, and fireflies. These things would not be replaceable.”
Other residents said it seems as though the college is rushing into the decision to sell, and they urged officials to think in terms of the next century instead of the next decade.
“I think it’s short-sighted to say the current campus is sufficient for the college’s needs,” one woman said. “In 100 years, Wellesley College might need that land.”
But Hammond said the college trustees have studied the campus and its finances and decided “that this land is not needed in the foreseeable future for the college.” However, he added that with the leasing restriction lifted, the option to oversee long-term tenants instead of selling the land “is on the table,” as is working with town officials, “if they are interested” in acquiring it.
Hammond said the college is also studying the possible sale of the Rollins Lot, a comparatively small space just east of the campus , to help finance the renovation project.
“We’re exploring that property as well,” he said.
Hammond said college officials hope to wrap up any movement on the so-called fringe properties by roughly 2018 to help finance the massive campus renovation project.
“We want to take the time to do this right,” he said, “but we need funding.”