Newton moves to protect temple land as sale to BC nears
NEWTON — Newton aldermen are sending a clear message to Boston College or any other potential owner of the 24-acre Congregation Mishkan Tefila property that they consider its wooded open space off limits to development.
The city’s Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a resolution Monday night urging Mayor Setti Warren to “work to preserve the recreation and conservation character” of the property at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway in Chestnut Hill.
The vote comes as members of the congregation prepare to decide Oct. 18 whether to sell its 24 acres to Boston College. The deal was announced in August.
Aldermen, as well as the Conservation Commission, the Chestnut Hill Garden Club, and a group of residents, want the mayor to explore all options, including putting conservation restrictions on the land, purchasing all or a portion of the property, or taking the land by eminent domain if necessary, to prevent future development of what may be the largest privately owned parcel of open space left in Newton.
“We have an opportunity here to do something that will outlast us all, or we can blow it, turn our heads, and do nothing,” Alderman Victoria Danberg said after Monday’s vote.
Warren said Tuesday he agrees with the resolution, which was introduced by Alderman Lisle Baker.
“I am committed to working with the eventual owner of the property to preserve the conservation area for passive recreation,” the mayor said.
The congregation reached an agreement with Boston College to purchase the entire 24-acre parcel, including the building and parking lot and approximately 13 acres of undeveloped woods adjacent to city and state-owned land.
That undeveloped portion of the property is the primary focus of the board’s concern.
Ted Tye, managing partner at National Development, who has been working with Congregation Mishkan Tefila for the past two years on its plans to sell, said the city “was well aware” members were seeking a buyer for the property.
“The city has already reached out to Boston College,” he said. “At the right time, the discussion of open space preservation will be an easy one.”
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn declined to comment Tuesday on the property, citing the pending vote by the congregation needed to approve the sale.
In August, however, he said the college intends to use the site for overflow parking and offices that do not need to be on the main campus, and that plans do not include building student housing or academic facilities.
Opponents of the sale worry that down the road those plans might change.
“We don’t know what will happen ten years from now,” said Danberg.
Resident Simon French, who lives walking distance from the property, said the undeveloped portion of the congregation’s land wedged in the middle of the Webster Conservation Area is used by people hiking, walking dogs, and kids exploring.
“Once you’re out there, you can’t hear the traffic at all,” he said. “There aren’t many places in Newton you can say that about.”
The open space provides diverse ecology and wildlife habitats, including a large vernal pool, according to a letter to the mayor and Board of Aldermen dated Oct. 2 from the Conservation Commission supporting the land’s preservation.
“The Conservation Commission sees this as an opportunity and an obligation to prevent a virtually irretrievable ecological disappointment,” the letter states. “It is an opportunity that should not be squandered and an obligation that should be met.”
Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan said that “there is really no dispute that this is a highly regarded and desirable property to keep in its current state.”
However, he said he wanted to make sure people understood that “this property is under agreement by two private parties.”
Built in the 1950s on land acquired from the state next to The Mall at Chestnut Hill, the once thriving Conservative synagogue has seen its congregation shrink by more than half over the years. Mishkan Tefila is looking to sell its large property and move into a smaller, more manageable location, synagogue president Paul Gershkowitz said in August.
The land was acquired by the congregation from the state with a 99-year stipulation that it could be used only for educational or religious purposes.
Tye called that restriction, which won’t expire until 2052, “very real.”
He said the temple considered several options, but because of Boston College’s standing in Newton, it was the logical partner.