NEWTON — Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is bracing for a legal battle that could last for years as the city tries to take 17 acres of prized woodland from Boston College by eminent domain and permanently protect it from development.
But it’s a fight that might have been avoided altogether if the city had simply bought the property when its former owner, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, offered to make a deal a few years ago, before Fuller became mayor.
“We reached out to the city, but they didn’t show any interest,” said Steven Kaitz, one of three co-presidents of the congregation.
That changed after Fuller, a longtime champion of acquiring Webster Woods, took office in 2018. Located half a mile from her Chestnut Hill home, the property sits amid more than 160 acres of public land, a sprawling wilderness that’s a favorite of hikers, dog walkers, and rock climbers.
After engaging in “multiple conversations” with the college since becoming mayor, Fuller announced Sept. 18 that she would pursue taking the land by eminent domain.
In a city riven by disputes over development and land use, the move has prompted some to call for more protection of open space in their neighborhoods, as well.
“I would love to hear Mayor Fuller say she supports parks and green space in the north side of town, as much as she does on the south side,” said Cedar Pruitt, a founder of Preserve Newton Parks, who backs the city’s effort to acquire Webster Woods. “Not doing so feels inconsistent to me.”
Fuller said she treats all parts of the city equally.
“I am the mayor of the city of Newton — north, south, east, and west,” Fuller said. “Preserving the largest tract of open space in Newton, wherever it is, is my job.”
The disputed land is part of a larger 25-acre property that Boston College bought from Congregation Mishkan Tefila in 2016 for $20 million. The 17-acre wooded portion backs up to the former synagogue building and parking lot on Hammond Pond Parkway.
Boston College will use “all legal avenues” to oppose Fuller’s bid to acquire the land through eminent domain, spokesman Jack Dunn said.
“We maintain that an eminent domain seizure is an extreme measure that will undermine confidence in the Mayor and the city,” Dunn said in an e-mail. “It is also an expensive proposition, the costs of which will be borne by the taxpayers of Newton.”
The college has not announced any plans for the property, which is located less than 2 miles from its Chestnut Hill campus, Dunn said. He said the college had proposed a land-swap for the Webster Woods portion, but Fuller never responded to the proposal.
Fuller said she did respond, “but preserving the 17-plus acres of woods was non-negotiable.”
“I would anticipate that this would take some time to resolve, and will wind its way through the courts for a number of years,” Fuller said.
An eminent domain taking would be something of a reversal by the city, which passed on an opportunity to buy the undeveloped land from its previous owner when Fuller was on the Board of Aldermen.
Mishkan Tefila contacted the city about buying the land in 2014 or 2015, according to Kaitz. They had hoped to sell the undeveloped 17-acre parcel, while the congregation would keep the remainder, including the synagogue building and parking lot, he said.
“It was disappointing, but there was no sense that they had any desire to pay us for any of that land,” Kaitz said.
A group of aldermen, including Fuller, sponsored a proposal in 2015 to either acquire the land or purchase the development rights, which led to a later resolution calling on then-mayor Setti Warren to “preserve the recreation and conservation character” of the property.
Warren, now executive director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, declined to comment.
Kaitz said the congregation eventually moved on to other potential buyers, finally reaching an agreement with Boston College for the entire property. After the sale, the congregation merged with Kehillath Israel in Brookline.
“I did everything I could as a city councilor then,” Fuller said. “I’m proud now as mayor to move forward with permanently protecting Webster Woods.”
Fuller’s efforts come as the city is roiled by developers’ proposals to build large mixed-use projects in West Newton, the Riverside MBTA, and on the south side, in Newton Upper Falls. Two other developments are under construction in Newtonville. Critics argue that the mayor should be working just as aggressively to protect those neighborhoods.
“It’s right to try and preserve Webster Woods and it’s right to be prepared to make a substantial investment,” said Leonard Gentile, an at-large councilor representing Auburndale. “But the rest of the city should be given consideration.”
Last month, Fuller triggered an uproar when she announced the city would explore building a new senior center at Albemarle Field, the largest park on the city’s north side. On Wednesday, Fuller announced the city would reassess the location, saying, “I heard the deep concern about the potential impact on park land.”
In October, Fuller said, she will make a formal request to the city’s Community Preservation Committee to fund the purchase of Webster Woods. More information will be released then about the potential costs.
Her decision was praised by Ted Kuklinski, the president of Newton Conservators, a local environmental group that promotes the protection of open spaces.
“We do hope that the City of Newton and Boston College can work out an equitable agreement and [be] open to other means if necessary to preserve this important component of the Garden City,” Kuklinski said in a statement.
Fuller said she is in it for the long haul.
“Just as Boston College looks out, not just in terms of years or decades, but centuries, I too as mayor of Newton look out not just in terms of years and decades, but centuries,” Fuller said. “We need to save Webster Woods.”