Opinion

Opinion | Rachelle G. Cohen

Conservation Law Foundation — less steward and more bully

The Conservation Law Foundation demanded $40 million from the developer of a tower where Whiskey Priest (above) is located.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File
The Conservation Law Foundation demanded $40 million from the developer of a tower where Whiskey Priest (above) is located.

HOW VERY SAD when a once valued institution loses its way.

Yes, there was a time when the Conservation Law Foundation waged a heroic battle that resulted in the clean-up of Boston Harbor — and that in turn made possible the development of the city’s most vibrant new Seaport District.

That was then. Today CLF is less steward and more bully.

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And it’s not simply a matter of the arrogance of its current president — although there is ample evidence of that — but of its priorities, its disturbing pattern of litigious behavior, and a board fraught with potential conflicts.

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Once CLF was an active participant in good faith negotiations for public access along the waterfront; today its pattern — according to those who have become all too familiar with it — has been to come into the process late in the game not with an eye toward changing the project but holding up developers for a piece of the action.

The most recent case in point is their original $40 million demand of the developers of 150 Seaport, currently the site of Whiskey Priest and Atlantic Beer Garden. That the project will provide housing (including an affordable housing component), a park, public access space, and a world class design — and occupy only 70 percent of the site (currently occupied 100 percent by the bars) didn’t seem to matter to CLF and its president, Bradley Campbell.

Where did that $40 million figure come from?

Brian Golden, head of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, in an internal staff memo obtained by the Globe, insisted, “To justify the big money ask, CLF is using a rationale that is wholly unrelated to the circumstances of the 150 Seaport project.” He accused the group of “grasping at straws” and using an analogy to federal rules “that appears to be apropos of nothing.”

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In the end CLF managed to extract a $13 million settlement from the developers, the Cronin Group, at least some of which is slated to be spent on park facilities.

But Golden’s memo points to a broader problem. Campbell, according to the Golden memo, also threatened legal action if the BPDA extended an existing right to develop the Wharf 8/Pier 7 parcel awarded in 2013. The parcel is basically the open space between Legal Harborside and the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, operated by Live Nation’s Don Law — husband of CLF’s board chair, Sara Molyneaux. The couple have also made substantial donations to CLF (they are listed as donating more than $50,000 in the group’s last annual report).

Law has, of course, made no secret of his interest in the wharf site. But as Golden notes in his memo, “Brad Campbell’s attempt to steer the designation is entirely inappropriate.” And “CLF is either crossing a line or coming dangerously close.”

Campbell, in an interview with Globe reporter Milton Valencia, denied that he advocated for Law’s designation as a developer for the site and said that Molyneaux recuses herself from any discussions involving projects in which her husband has an interest.

Well that should solve everything, no? Aren’t nonprofit boards supposed to provide independent guidance and oversight?

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Molyneaux chairs the board of trustees, and the board of overseers (which appoints the trustees) and is on the board of CLF Ventures, the group’s consulting arm.

Doug Foy, a former CLF president, is a trustee and now operates his own environmental consulting firm, Serrafix, which lists on its website among its clients the Barr Foundation, which donates generously to CLF. Paula Gold, a former trustee now on the CLF Ventures Board, is chief regulatory counsel for Plymouth Rock Assurance, which writes the auto insurance policies for CLF’s subsidiary, Environmental Insurance Agency, from which CLF earns a commission.

CLF has given every indication that it intends to continue on its current obstructionist path. Last month it announced its opposition to the state’s recent approval of a zoning plan for the downtown waterfront that would permit a high-rise on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, proposed by developer Don Chiofaro, and another building on the current Hook Lobster site, insisting the $14.4 million in community benefits and open space requirements aren’t nearly enough.

CLF has asked the state’s environmental affairs secretary to reconsider his approval for the zoning plan, which has been years in the making. But make no mistake, CLF will huff and puff and threaten to litigate the projects into an early death — all in defense of what is now an ugly garage and a trailer selling lobster rolls.

Rachelle G. Cohen, former editorial page editor of the Boston Herald, is columnist and a contributing member of the Globe’s editorial board.