The two-year battle between Northeastern University and its neighbors in Nahant has largely been limited to the small North Shore town and its scenic coast.
But the town-gown fight spilled over to the State House on Tuesday. Critics from Nahant packed the Gardner Auditorium to show support for a bill aimed at ending Northeastern’s plans to expand its marine research center in the town.
If they succeed, the opponents’ impact could go far beyond the peninsula they call home: They could give a new tool to cities and towns across the state to oversee construction projects proposed by nonprofit institutions.
At issue is a roughly seven-decade-old state law, known as the Dover Amendment, that allows nonprofit religious and educational organizations to bypass local zoning rules that govern the uses allowed on parcels owned by these groups.
Given the extra power the law gives nonprofits, the Dover Amendment has its fans, and its detractors. It’s a recurring target on Beacon Hill, and several Dover-related bills were heard by the Legislature’s committee on municipalities and regional government on Tuesday.
Representative Peter Capano, a Lynn Democrat who also represents Nahant, made the case for his legislation to clarify that nonprofits shouldn’t use Dover to avoid local wetlands or natural resource area protections. (The Northeastern campus sits within a natural resource zone where only recreational buildings are allowed to be built.)
Capano told the committee that Massachusetts is the only state that allows nonprofits this kind of leeway with local zoning. He said it’s time to “close this loophole,” to bring the state in line with a modern approach to conservation. His North Shore colleague, Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, joined him before the committee to show support; she said small towns in particular could be vulnerable to Dover-related abuses.
Michael Armini, senior vice president for external affairs at the school, later said Northeastern wants to start work as soon as possible on its 55,000-square-foot expansion; the project would nearly triple its building space on its 20-acre property on East Point at the peninsula’s far edge. The school does need some permits from the town, and Armini said Northeastern is hoping it doesn’t have to resort to litigation to get them. Armini seemed skeptical about the prospects for Capano’s bill, calling it a “Hail Mary pass by a small group of activists.”
Northeastern’s previous issue in Burlington also came up at the hearing. There, the Boston university is expanding its campus to accommodate security research for the US Army. As in Nahant, the research building is going up next to parkland. One big difference: That project, which is nearing completion, was controversial but in the end supported by the town government.
The Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts is also watching the debate closely. President Rich Doherty says his group regularly fights attacks on Dover, which he said helps ensure well-planned college campuses. The association will submit written testimony at a later date. Doherty won’t divulge what the group will say. But it won’t be positive, if its previous history is any indication.
Ben Fierro, representing the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, was clear about where his group stands. He said he worries cities and towns will use this new language to box out social service work such as addiction-treatment providers protected by Dover’s educational exemption. He notes that towns still can impose reasonable building limits on these nonprofits, and points to a 1986 state Appeals Court ruling that made it clear a church structure could not be exempt from a town’s wetlands rules.
That Appeals Court decision isn’t enough for Northeastern’s opponents in Nahant. David Lurie, a lawyer who represents the Nahant Preservation Trust, says the bill would provide extra assurances by codifying wetlands protections in state law and extending those protections to natural resource districts.
Nahant and Northeastern may never reach a peaceful agreement. A court could end up intervening. In the meantime, this local fracas could have significant ripple effects, well beyond Nahant’s seemingly tranquil shoreline.