Newton residents including Boston College students packed the City Council chambers at a public hearing Wednesday, Nov. 6, to support Mayor Fuller’s proposal to spend over $15 million to acquire and preserve 17.4 acres of Webster Woods through eminent domain, while some were apprehensive about the requested allocation of funds and potential legal battle with Boston College.
Approximately 100 residents attended the standing room-only public hearing held by the Community Preservation Committee, following the city’s request for $15.7 million of Community Preservation funds for the Chestnut Hill space.
“What we very much wanted to do is [to protect] the heart of the woods,” Jonathan Yeo, the city’s chief operating officer, said in an interview before the meeting. “So we need to permanently preserve those woods to make sure they are not taken down and filled in for some development.”
The Community Preservation Act helps communities create and preserve historic sites, affordable housing, open space, and outdoor recreation space through a property tax surcharge.
“[The taking] is the only way now available to ensure the preservation, conservation and recreational character of this land,” said Ward 7 Councilor R. Lisle Baker.
Baker said Fuller’s request anticipates long-term financing, and the city needs CPA funds to advance the taking.
Yeo said Fuller proposed the acquisition of the land through eminent domain in September when the city failed to reach an agreement with Boston College after 18 months of negotiations.
Since the college has not detailed its plans to develop the property, some residents questioned the necessity to take immediate action while the city is facing other issues, such as a housing crisis.
“In rare instances, [CPA funds] need to be used for eminent domain taking when the municipality is not able to reach [an] agreement with the owner,” said Yeo. “Unfortunately, in this case, we’ve tried very hard to reach [an] agreement with Boston College, but they were not willing to preserve the woods.”
Yeo said “a sizable amount of money” would be covered both by CPA funds and from bonding over a 30-year time period, and the city would still be able to allocate funds for other projects including affordable housing and historic conservation.
“It’s a source of recreation for the people of Newton,” Beth Wilkinson, chair of the Webster Woods Advisory Panel and president of the Board of Directors of the Newton Conservators, said in an interview before the meeting.
Wilkinson said the preservation of Webster Woods is necessary to protect the city’s resources. More than 1,500 residents across the city signed petitions to support the mayor’s proposal of the taking, she added.
Although some Newton residents support the acquisition and preservation of the urban woods through eminent domain, Boston College disputes the city’s proposal to allocate a large proportion of CPA funds for the taking.
Tom Keady, vice president of government and community affairs at BC, said the college has contributed to the benefit of Newton as one of the city’s largest employers. The college opposes Fuller’s request, which he said would impact the city’s other projects and investments, he said.
“Boston College has continued to be a good neighbor,” said Keady.
Peter Mahoney, a 1987 graduate of Boston College who lives in Newton Centre, said he is a frequent visitor to Webster Woods, walking there with several times a week with his wife.
“While I recognize the fact that the land transaction was not handled well by the city in the past, the city is now making a fair offer to an important partner and neighbor that preserves a critical resource for the future,” he said. “I implore BC to stand down from the fight for the greater good — or as the Jesuit Latin scholars might say ad maius bonum.”
Some Boston College students spoke against their college’s development plans, expressing their concerns over the impacts on the ecosystem in Webster Woods.
“We deplore any decisions made by Boston College administration to develop the property of 300 Hammond Pond Parkway,” said Stevie Walker, a Boston College junior and the president of EcoPledge, a student organization that seeks to promote sustainable initiatives.
Walker said the preservation of Webster Woods is crucial to protect the diverse ecosystem and to provide resources for scientific, biological and environmental research. The college’s environmental groups support Fuller’s proposal, she said.
“We’d much rather be studying in our dorm rooms than being at this meeting right now,” said Kyle Rosenthal, a Boston College junior and a representative of a student organization, Climate Justice at Boston College. “And we hope that our presence here is a testament to the importance of protecting these woods.”
Some who oppose the proposal to use CPA funds for the taking understand the importance to preserve the woods. However, they do not want a protracted legal battle with Boston College.
“Newton is suing [the] historically prominent Catholic university and that doesn’t look so great,” said Dawn Davis, a Newton resident.
Davis said the city should find other alternatives to preserve Webster Woods rather than acquiring the land through eminent domain, considering the burden on taxpayers. She also questioned why the city did not purchase the land from Congregation Mishkan Tefila a few years ago.
“I think the city staff, the conservation staff and the City Council have always wanted to protect these woods,” said Yeo, who has been hiking Webster Woods for over 25 years as a Newton resident.
He said although the last administration did not purchase the land when it was on the open market, the City Council included the preservation of Webster Woods in its priorities in 2014 and passed a resolution to support it in 2015.
The committee will vote on its recommendation to the city in its next meeting on Nov. 12, and the City Council will decide whether to approve the taking on Nov. 25.
Anju Miura can be reached at email@example.com.