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CLF plans suit to overturn new zoning that allows skyscrapers on harbor’s edge

Developer Don Chiofaro has for years been trying to build a tower on the Boston Harbor Garage site.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Developer Don Chiofaro has for years been trying to build a tower on the Boston Harbor Garage site.

A major environmental group said Wednesday that it will sue to overturn a new zoning plan for Boston’s downtown waterfront, creating yet another hurdle for a long-planned skyscraper on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.

The Conservation Law Foundation filed notice that it will challenge the plan in court, saying that it violates state law by giving developers the right to build too much along a key stretch of Boston Harbor while requiring too few public benefits in return.

Chiefly, said CLF senior counsel Peter Shelley, the decision to allow a 600-foot tower on the garage site could open the way for a wall of skyscrapers on the edge of the harbor, where most buildings top out at 145 feet or less.

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“The consensus view had long been that development on the waterfront should respect the traditional lines of Boston Harbor architecture, with warehouses and lower lines that step back to taller buildings in the Financial District,” Shelley said. “What [Matthew Beaton] did in the downtown Municipal Harbor Plan was essentially throw that out completely.” Beaton, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, gave final approval in April for the city’s plan.

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What’s more, CLF charges, the city and state demanded too little in public benefits in exchange for granting builders extra height.

Chiofaro Co., which owns the garage site, agreed to create new open space and pay $10 million for a so-called Blueway in front of the neighboring New England Aquarium. But the CLF said that sum and the $3 million promised by developers of the nearby James Hook & Co. lobster seller site were arbitrary and should be higher, according to the CLF.

“That number was completely pulled out of the air,” Shelley said. “It has no relationship to the increased value of the property from the extra height.”

In January, the CLF settled a lawsuit it had filed on similar grounds against a plan for 150 Seaport, a luxury condo tower on Seaport Boulevard in South Boston, after the developer agreed to contribute $13.1 million over 35 years for parks and other needs. That legal fight irritated some at City Hall and resulted in several heated meetings between the CLF and advocates and city and state officials. Still, the CLF has vowed to continue pushing for what it calls “smarter” development that protects access to Boston Harbor.

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It expects to formally file suit within a few weeks, Shelley said.

Officials at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which spent five years crafting the zoning plan, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Beaton.

Don Chiofaro, who has spent nearly a decade wrangling with City Hall and neighbors of the garage site over zoning for the 900,000-square-foot tower he hopes to build, is preparing to file plans with the city this summer for the structure. And he is scheduled to meet next week with the CLF’s president, Bradley Campbell, despite the planned lawsuit.

“We haven’t seen it. We don’t know much about it. But it’s not unexpected,” Chiofaro said. “It doesn’t leave us much room for a conversation, but we’re going to have one.”

The suit is the latest twist in a planning process that has dragged out for years, through multiple mayors and governors. But it’s part of a broader debate about development along Boston Harbor that, Campbell said, is long overdue.

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“With each decision by the state the rules are becoming disregarded more and more,” he said. “It’s probably time to sort out whether the rules have any force, or if they’re just quaint artifacts of the way things used to be.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com.