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As Wellesley College moves to sell land, critics emerge

A walking tour was held in August through the so-called North 40 parcel up for sale.katherine taylor for the boston globe/file/Globe Freelance

As Wellesley College officials approach a decision on selling a large tract of undeveloped land near the middle of town, opponents are ratcheting up efforts to persuade them to slow down.

The controversy involves the college’s so-called North 40 parcel on Weston Road, 46 acres separated from its campus by Route 135 and MBTA commuter-rail tracks. The college is looking to sell the residentially zoned property, which is being used for passive recreation and community gardens, to raise revenue toward a major project to upgrade and expand its facilities.

The plan has generated opposition from some residents, alumni, and faculty who don’t want the open space developed. A group formed by opponents, the Friends of the North 40, has been floating alternatives that its members say would protect the land from any kind of development.

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The college, meanwhile, has other options very much in play: Five potential buyers, including the town, are still in contention.

The town’s proposal does not specify how it would use the land, but officials have said the community needs space for affordable housing, playing fields, or a school. Also in the mix are bids for a continuing-care retirement community, age-restricted housing, and multifamily housing. Town assessors have valued the land at $25.3 million; the college has not disclosed how much the bidders are offering for it.

A college official said a task force reviewing the five proposals made a recommendation to the board of trustees’ executive committee on Wednesday. The proposal is slated to go before the full board for a vote this month, probably before Christmas, and a public announcement will be made sometime after that, said Marianne Cooley, assistant to Wellesley College’s president and secretary for its board of trustees.

“It was a challenging recommendation to come to,’’ Cooley said. “The college was presented with some very excellent options.’’

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Cynthia Curtis, a spokeswoman for the Friends of the North 40, said its members want the college to hold off on any of the options, and carefully consider the opinions of alumni and the role that nonprofit land trusts might play in protecting the land.

“We have been engaging and hearing from more and more alumni who are increasingly concerned about the lack of transparency’’ on the school’s part, and its seeming rush to sell the land, Curtis said. Many graduates of the women’s college, she said, don’t want the land sold. “They are hearing about it and starting to articulate their concerns.’’

One such alumna is Nancy Gilbert, who graduated in 1969 and lives in Jamesport, N.Y., a community on Long Island. She said she is a regular donor, has attended every class reunion, and has money set aside in her will for the college. She said she didn’t even know the land existed until this year, but she is disappointed by the plans to sell, and doesn’t think all options have been explored.

“I’m concerned because once you develop land, it’s gone,’’ said Gilbert, who volunteers for a land trust near her home. “That makes me extremely sad. To sell the land to raise money to improve buildings doesn’t feel right.’’

Gilbert said she initially hesitated to get involved, but after discussing the issue with classmates, she plans to call the president’s office and voice her opinions.

“I certainly don’t want to threaten to withdraw my support,’’ she said. “Our hope is they slow down to take into consideration some of the concerns, and open up the dialogue more than it has been.’’

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Cooley said there have been opportunities for the public and the college community to give feedback about the proposed sale over the past few months, and the responses have been mixed.

“I do think that our alumni are not monolithic, and we’ve received a range of opinions,’’ she said. “They all have an attachment to Wellesley and a deep love for it, and we have found that when we have discussions and go through the thoughtful process that trustees have engaged in, they think perhaps it’s a reasonable approach for the college to take.’’

The college’s Trustee Real Estate Revenue Task Force reviewed 13 proposals, Cooley said, and eliminated eight based on “inadequate value to the college,’’ lack of open space, or the potential for high impact to town services or traffic.

The final five proposals were responsive to open space requirements and the community’s desire for gardens, trails and education opportunities, Cooley said. She added that the task force walked away from higher-value bids that did not include those elements.

Selectman Donald McCauley, chairman of the town’s North 40 study committee, said the town is eager for news.

“We made the short list,’’ McCauley said, referring to the town’s bid, “and are now anxiously awaiting to see how it proceeds from here.’’

RELATED:

5/5: Wellesley College considers selling 47 acres in town

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5/7: Neighbors air worries on land sale

8/17: Wellesley considers what should happen to college tract

9/28: Wellesley sets Friday as the deadline for North 40 bids


Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com