In a last-ditch appeal, the leaders of two prominent environmental groups have asked the Baker administration to abandon a plan to lease seven acres of park land along the Charles River to a nonprofit group, saying it limits public access and sets a dangerous precedent for the management of protected land.
Under the plan, approved by state lawmakers in 2012, Simmons College would spend at least $5 million to build a sports complex at Daly Field, a park in Brighton. Supporters say the renovation would transform the long-neglected property into a neighborhood gem, featuring two new fields, a track, tennis courts, and a river walkway.
But George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the state should not lease such a prime location without a substantial return and should not risk compromising its public use.
“Why are we giving away rare, valuable protected park land to private entities?” he asked. “Why are we giving it away for nothing? We think public land should be protected for public uses.”
In a recent letter, Bachrach and Robert Zimmerman Jr., who directs the Charles River Watershed Association, called on the Baker administration to scuttle the agreement.
“Apparently, if you come to the Commonwealth, you can get park land for free,” they wrote. “This will truly be Simmons’ field, allowing modest public access.”
The agreement stipulates that Simmons would have full use of the fields from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays from March to May and from mid-August to November.
Saturdays would be shared by Simmons and the local and abutting communities. Sundays would be reserved for community use.
Time would also be set aside for the Brighton High School football team, which once played at the field, and the Allston Brighton Little League. Other groups would reserve the fields through the state’s recreation department, as they do now.
“It remains public land,” said state Representative Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat and a leading backer of the legislation authorizing the agreement. “This is not going to be a Simmons field.”
The Fenway women’s college would not pay a yearly fee but is required to provide $500,000 for restoration work along the Charles River in Watertown and to maintain the fields for the 20 years of the lease.
The lease agreement requires Baker’s approval. The state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance is reviewing the deal, a spokesman said.
Moran said that while he shares opponents’ philosophical concerns about leasing protected public land, the opportunity to turn a badly neglected park into a brand-new facility was too good to pass up.
“We haven’t invested in parks and open space in a long, long time,” Moran said, adding it was not realistic to expect the state to renovate the park anytime soon. “I’ll stand up and defend this.”
Simmons College has called on the Baker administration to approve the agreement. In a letter sent Friday, president Helen Drinan said an independent appraisal had determined that Simmons would pay a fair price under the agreement.
“In a perfect world, public land would be maintained with public funds for public use,” Drinan wrote. “However, as a college president in the 21st century, I must be a realist as well as an environmentalist. Reality dictates that the many priorities of state spending, coupled with a crushing state budget deficit, have not allowed for the proper maintenance of Daly Field for many years.”
More than three-quarters of prime-use time at the facility would be open to the public, Drinan said. If approved soon, the fields would open in August 2016.
In a separate letter to Baker, Lynda Connolly, president of the nonprofit friends group and a Simmons administrator, criticized opponents for delaying the project at great cost.
“The student-athletes of the Brighton-Allston community and the student-athletes at Simmons College, along with other members of the general public, have long been held hostage to the delay tactics of the very small, but highly vocal, opponents of the Daily Field project.”
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.