If not quite David versus Goliath, Newton residents battling the city’s biggest mixed-use project face a developer that has outspent them more than 10 to one in hopes of swaying voters ahead of a crucial election Tuesday.
Northland Investment Corp. has contributed nearly $320,000 to a campaign backing its plan to build hundreds of apartments and new commercial space in Newton Upper Falls, according to campaign finance reports, dwarfing the roughly $28,000 raised by opponents who say the project is too big.
On Super Tuesday, Newton voters will be asked whether they support a zoning change for the development. A “yes” vote will allow Northland to move forward; a “no” will essentially block the project.
Northland’s donations to the ballot committee Yes for Newton’s Future have paid for consultants, digital and print advertising, and canvassers, robocalls, and texts to reach voters, according to campaign finance reports filed with the city.
Peter Standish, Northland’s senior vice president, said the ballot committee has signed up more than 75 volunteers, and has the support of a dozen community groups and more than 300 Newton residents.
“Supporters have hosted house parties where neighbors come undecided about the project and leave with lawn signs,” Standish said in a statement. “The Yes for Newton campaign is all about the City’s future and values, and the best messengers for the campaign are Newton residents.”
But the Yes campaign’s reliance on the financial support of Northland -- its sole donor -- shows the amount of corporate influence in the special election, said Martina Jackson, cochairwoman of a ballot committee that opposes the project.
Jackson’s group, the Committee for Responsible Development, raised its money from about 150 people, according to campaign finance reports.
“The reality is, we are a wholly community-based citizens group. Northland is paying a very high price for the 'yes’ vote,” Jackson said in an interview. “We have citizens canvassing on their own time and their own dime because it means so much.”
Northland’s project -- which includes 800 apartments, 180,000 square feet of office space, and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space -- was approved by the City Council in December. The project includes amenities for the city, including a shuttle service to a nearby MBTA stop, a traffic management plan, 10 acres of open space, and money for improvements such as upgrades at a local elementary school.
Supporters of the development -- among them the city’s mayor and advocates for housing, business, and the environment -- point to what they say are the project’s economic benefits and the inclusion of 120 affordable apartments.
The project would consist of 14 buildings on 22 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets, an area already plagued at times by traffic issues. Opponents say the buildings are too tall, too dense, and will only make traffic worse.
Opponents launched a referendum effort and gathered thousands of signatures needed to bring the issue to a special municipal election ballot vote, which coincides with the March 3 presidential primary.
For the past several weeks, the two ballot question committees on both sides of the fraught debate have launched get-out-the-vote efforts -- knocking on doors, making calls, sending mailers, and handing out literature.
The ballot committee opposing the project has spent about $23,000, with the biggest expenditure of about $11,600 for a citywide mailing of a “no” campaign leaflet, according to the Committee for Responsible Development’s finance report. It also spent $3,000 for lawn signs, $5,200 on other mailings and leaflets, and about $600 on Facebook ads.
It also received a $4,000 loan from RightSize Newton, a local nonprofit established by residents critical of the scope of development in the city. RightSize Newton files a public tax return in April, said Randy Block, the group’s president.
Of the ballot committee’s fundraising, Jackson said, “It says to me that ours was really a citizens group that was motivated by a democratic process.”
The two opposition groups have about 50 volunteers working on voter outreach efforts.
In money raised this year, the ballot question campaign could dwarf last fall’s hotly contested City Council election. Northland’s donation alone nearly equals the $322,000 in individual donations reported by candidates who ran in those races.
There are no limits to contributions to ballot question committees, according to Jason Tait, a spokesman for the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Block, president of RightSize Newton, criticized the amount of money Northland donated to the Yes campaign.
“It’s perfectly legal to do so, but I don’t think it’s healthy for our municipal elections,” he said.
Since January, Yes for Newton’s Future has spent about $273,000 on the campaign, including $81,700 on printing and postage, nearly $70,000 on advertising, $4,500 on robocalls and texts, and $4,000 for a poll, according to its finance report.
The committee also paid $60,000 to Northwind Strategies, which has been responding to some press inquiries to the group. Northwind is a lobbying firm founded by Doug Rubin, a longtime Democratic political consultant who has advised US Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.
Northland also offered about $28,000 in in-kind donations, including staff time and office space at the project site on Needham Street, to the Yes campaign.
Alongside unpaid volunteers, the Yes committee also paid 15 canvassers a total of about $22,000 to reach out to voters. Allison Sharma, chairwoman of the group, said those canvassers do not hold campaign signs, and will identify themselves as paid staff if asked.
Sharma said she does not believe that Northland’s large donation of money into a local election will set a precedent.
Northland has invested a tremendous amount of time and resources on the Upper Falls development, and the company is going to do whatever it thinks is necessary to move forward with the project, she said.
“[The] dollars of the community members weren’t needed; we are contributing where it makes the most sense,” Sharma said. “We’re doing the grass-roots stuff, the person-to-person interaction, explaining the benefits of the project, [and] what could be lost if the project is overturned.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.