Brookline considers seizing college land by eminent domain
A standoff is brewing in Brookline over town officials’ surprise announcement that they may seize 7 acres of Pine Manor College’s front lawn by eminent domain to build an elementary school.
Pine Manor president Tom O’Reilly said he was shocked to receive a phone call this week from the town’s top official, who told him Brookline might take part of his campus.
“I said, ‘Whoa, the college is not interested in any land deals,’ ” O’Reilly said in an interview.
But the town is very interested. Officials have been searching for five years for a site for a ninth elementary school, and their top choice just fell through. The town was considering a site a half-mile down Heath Street from Pine Manor, but learned recently about an obscure federal restriction that would make it more difficult to build there.
Town officials said they have not ruled out that option, or a few others, but they now believe that Pine Manor’s land could be exactly what they’re looking for. Two town boards, the selectmen and the School Committee, came to that conclusion at a closed-door meeting on Sept. 19, the town said this week in a press release .
“Sometimes a municipality has needs and we have to meet those needs, and eminent domain is a tool. It’s a last resort, but it’s a tool in our arsenal, and if we have to use it we have to use it,” said Neil Wishinsky, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
The land in question is along Heath Street, near its intersection with Hammond Street and close to Route 9. In all, the school sits on 52 acres that include classrooms, dormitories, a recently renovated cafeteria, and the Dane Estate, the historic mansion that is now Pine Manor’s central office.
On Tuesday evening, after he found out about the proposal to seize the school property, O’Reilly wrote a strongly worded letter to the town vigorously opposing it. Town officials had approached the college about the land twice before, most recently this spring, but O’Reilly had told them the school wasn’t interested.
The letter touted the school’s diversity — 85 percent of students are people of color and 84 percent are first-generation students. It said the school has recovered from its formerly troubled financial position and is on track to thrive.
And, O’Reilly noted, the college was not invited to a hearing or public meeting on the topic.
“As our elected representatives, I ask you to press the stop button on this proposal,” he wrote.
Wishinsky, in a phone interview Wednesday, said the town values Pine Manor and does not want to harm it.
“If anything, I see this as an opportunity to better integrate Pine Manor into the life of the community by bringing more town residents in contact with Pine Manor,” he said.
The matter won’t be decided soon. Wishinsky said officials hope to now gather public input; the agenda for a Special Town Meeting in mid-November includes a proposal to study this or other possible locations for a new school.
He said selectmen hope to hold a public meeting about the proposal next week.
The town needs a new school because of a burgeoning population of children, according to School Committee chairman David Pollak. Some schools are so crowded they have five lunch periods, he said.
According to town documents, officials ruled out the Pine Manor site last September after they learned the college was not interested in selling. Eminent domain was deemed a “hostile” approach at the time, according to meeting minutes on the town website.
The former two-year finishing school for women has struggled for years with financial problems and a series of presidents. It was placed on academic probation by the regional accreditation agency in 2016, and O’Reilly was hired 15 months ago to turn the school around.
By his accounting, that has happened. The school has balanced its budget for the past two years and grown enrollment and revenue, he said. It now has 500 students — half degree-seeking undergraduates and the other half foreign students who come for intensive English language training programs.
In 2013, before O’Reilly was president, the college did sell 5.1 acres to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, but O’Reilly said the school no longer needs to do that. According to town records, the front of Pine Manor’s land has been subdivided into four one-acre lots, but O’Reilly said that was before he became president.
Accreditors are due to visit the school this fall to assess whether to remove the probationary status. O’Reilly is hopeful. He has been making his way around town on a public relations tour to reintroduce the “new” Pine Manor College to those inside and outside the higher education universe.
He said the college, a nonprofit, makes payments in lieu of taxes to the town, opens its yards and fields to the community, and has even connected its library to the Brookline public library system.
“Then to be sideswiped and shocked in this way is striking,” he said.
To take the property, the town would need a vote of approval at Town Meeting, said James Masterman, an eminent domain attorney at the firm Greenberg Traurig. The town would then have to give the college fair market value for the land based on the site’s highest and best use, he said.
Wishinsky, the Brookline selectmen chairman, said he has an idea of what the land is worth but would not disclose that number. The land Brady bought for $4.5 million is now worth $15 million, town records show.
The Pine Manor land and the original site the town was considering are surrounded by several rich and powerful neighbors.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft owns four properties directly east of Pine Manor that are worth a combined $19 million, according to town records online.
Kraft’s son Jonathan owns four properties on the west side of Pine Manor that are also near the original site where the town wanted to build a school. They are worth a combined $14 million, according to town records.
Brookline neighbors have been closely following the search for a new school site. Attorney Stephen Wald represents a group of residents who live near the other site the town was considering and oppose that option for several reasons, chief among them traffic.
Some residents are also upset that the town developed the idea to take the college site without public discussion. They worry the same traffic problems would occur at Pine Manor.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out what they’re doing, given the fact that they’ve been doing it behind closed doors in secret,” Wald said.