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As Newton mayor pushes land taking, Boston College urges residents to oppose it

Boston College bought the former Mishkan synagogue property in 2016. Newton's mayor wants to acquire roughly 17 acres of woodlands behind the building by eminent domain. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As Newton’s mayor presses forward with a proposal to take roughly 17 acres of Webster Woods from Boston College by eminent domain, BC is making its case directly to residents on why the university opposes the move — and how it would be costly for taxpayers.

That debate casts the city and the university on opposing sides over the future of the largest forest in Newton. On Monday, the City Council is expected to discuss the proposed taking — a necessary step to proceed with a purchase.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said it is “necessary and important” to preserve the property, which is close to roughly 160 acres of public open space along Hammond Pond Parkway in Chestnut Hill.


“I am convinced that preserving Webster Woods in perpetuity is not only in the best interest of Newton residents, but also in the best interest of the students and learning community at Boston College,” Fuller said in an interview.

Thomas Keady, Jr., the university’s vice president for governmental and community affairs, made a direct appeal in a Nov. 11 letter to residents.

“Boston College has been a good neighbor and an engaged member of this community since 1913,” Keady said in the letter.

Keady asked residents to contact Fuller and city councilors if they agreed that “Newton taxpayers deserve better than to be subjected to an ill-advised and expensive eminent domain proposal.”

In 2016, BC paid Congregation Mishkan Tefila $20 million for 25 acres of land, including the roughly 17-acre property now sought by the city.

The city is not seeking to obtain the remaining 8 acres BC purchased from the congregation in 2016, which includes an existing building and parking.

Fuller has said the city will need $15.2 million to buy the undeveloped land, plus an estimated $740,000 in legal fees associated with the proposed taking.


The Community Preservation Committee approved $15.7 million from the city’s open space fund earlier this month, while the advocacy group Friends of Webster Woods will donate $200,000, according to the city.

Jack Dunn, a university spokesman, told the Globe that BC has contacted city councilors about the proposal. The university has also received hundreds of calls, letters, and e-mails from Newton residents with no BC affiliation who oppose the taking, he said.

Those residents “view the mayor’s effort as ‘financial recklessness’ and ‘not being in the best interest of the community,’ among many other complaints,” Dunn said in an e-mail.

The college has not announced plans for the property, but recent court filings hinted at possible development.

Boston College sought a preliminary injunction against the Community Preservation Committee from taking the vote to fund the purchase under the state Open Meeting Law. A Middlesex Superior Court judge denied the motion earlier this month, saying the committee had followed the law.

In its complaint, the university said it “has plans in progress and anticipates future development of the entire [Hammond Pond Parkway] Property.”

Dunn, the BC spokesman, said the language in the complaint refers to long-term feasibility studies to assess the potential for development, “without any specific program or timetable in place,” and is a standard procedure among property owners.

“The long-term feasibility studies, which began when we purchased the property in 2016, take into account the restrictions in place for protected resources within the 17 acres,” Dunn said in an e-mail to the Globe.


Keady argued in his letter to residents that the city had a chance to buy the land before the college made its purchase, and the value of the land is “likely far in excess” of the amount budgeted by the city.

The letter noted that Hebrew College received $18 million in 2018 for 7 acres of land in Newton, and Newbury College’s 8-acre Brookline campus sold for $34 million in September.

Funding the taking would also mean the city would not have the money for other projects, Keady said.

Fuller said the cost would be bonded over 30 years, allowing the city to fund other preservation efforts. The community preservation money is limited for uses including land and historic preservation, affordable housing, and outdoor recreation facilities.

At least 15 current city councilors have publicly supported eminent domain taking of the Webster Woods property, according to Newton Conservators, which released responses to a questionnaire before the city’s Nov. 5 municipal election.

Not all Newton residents support the proposal. During a preservation committee meeting earlier this month, Dawn Davis said the city should find an alternative to eminent domain because of the cost to taxpayers.

“Newton is suing [the] historically prominent Catholic university and that doesn’t look so great,” Davis said at the meeting.

Rob Kane, an Elgin Street resident, opposes the taking, and said the city had the chance to buy the land years ago.

“My family considers BC to be great neighbors. It is unfortunate a group of residents think they can spark a battle with a college that provides so much to Newton,” Kane said in an e-mail. “BC owns the land and they deserve to build whatever they want.”


Supporters of the taking, including Ken Kimmell, co-director of Friends of Webster Woods, cited environmental concerns if the land were to be developed.

“Open space is very limited. There isn’t very much of it left,” Kimmell said. “If you let this go, that’s 17 acres of open space you’ll never get back.”

Kyle Rosenthal a member of the student group Climate Justice at Boston College, said about 400 people, largely BC students, have signed onto a petition supporting the preservation of Webster Woods.

“We do care about BC, and what is best for it,” Rosenthal said. “And what is best for BC and the larger community is the protection of these woods.”

Boston University journalist Anju Miura contributed to this report. John Hilliard can be reached at