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Judge rules against allowing a restaurant on Long Wharf

A portion of Long Wharf is seen in an aerial photo.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff file/Globe Staff

The tip of Long Wharf will remain an open recreational area accessible to the public for enjoyment of sweeping vistas of Boston Harbor, and not the site of a restaurant and bar, a federal court judge ruled on Wednesday.

The ruling in what the judge dubbed the "Long War for Long Wharf" was the latest twist in a seven-year legal saga. It has pitted a handful of North End residents determined to keep the area commercial-free, against the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which considers a restaurant there a good way to attract people to the waterfront.

The ruling says that the BRA relied on the wrong map of Long Wharf when it approved a commercial venture for that site. Had the "right" map been consulted, the BRA would have seen that the area was off-limits according to an agreement struck in the 1980s that exchanged federal clean-up money for a promise of open space, according to the ruling.

"We are very happy that one of the most beautiful views in Boston will remain open to everyone far into the future," said Sanjoy Mahajan, a former neighbor of the site who helped lead the legal challenge to the BRA.


A BRA spokesman said the agency was "reviewing the decision and weighing our options" and declined further comment.

Litigation over the case has spanned the state, federal and administrative courts, including the state Supreme Judicial Court, before landing in front of US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris.

Her 26-page ruling appears to be a clean win for the restaurant opponents, but further appeal by the BRA is an option.

Saris found no fault in the BRA's conduct, but did chide the National Parks Service for not doing a better job of digging into its own files years ago. The park at the end of the wharf was financed in the 1980s under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and as a result became protected recreational area.


But when the BRA first proposed the restaurant, the Park Service signed off of it, after having accepted what turned out to be faulty research — the wrong map — presented to it by a state agency. That map showed the area planned for a restaurant to be outside the protected area.

Meanwhile, a determined group of North End residents, unaware of the discrepancy in the maps, challenged the BRA on other grounds, and at virtually every step. The restaurant opponents appeared to have lost their case in 2012 when the SJC sided with the BRA.

That was when a retired Park Service manager, reading about the controversy in the Globe, remembered the map and made a call. Sure enough, the Park Service found the 1980s map in a federal archive in Philadelphia. The new map shows that the proposed restaurant lies squarely within the bounds of protected area.

The BRA argued, among other things, that the discovery of the controlling map came too late to allow the Park Service to cry foul.

"The court recognizes that" the Park Service "could have -- and should have -- looked more carefully through its own records at the outset rather than simply rely on the state agency's say-so," Saris wrote.

"Nevertheless, the court finds" the Park Service "changed its position in good faith after realizing a mistake," Saris wrote. "The court declines to force" the park Service "to forfeit a significant land interest held for the public based on" the Park Service's "negligence."


The office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, which represented the Park Service in the case, said in a statement "we are pleased with the court's decision to safeguard this historic land."

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.