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Newton Mayor Seeks to Reclaim Webster Woods Via Eminent Domain

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is seeking to reclaim Webster Woods from Boston College via eminent domain, a power that allows the government to take back land as long as it compensates the owner and maintains the land for public use. BC purchased the land at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway in 2016, sparking uproar from community members who feared that the land would be used for development.

Fuller, then a member of the City Council, and the City Council were not opposed to BC owning the land when it was purchased, the University said in a press release. BC said that it will oppose the mayor’s actions to reclaim the woods, and it will take all legal actions necessary to keep Webster Woods under control of the University. 

“While I understand that they’re disappointed the City of Newton is moving forward, I’m also disappointed we couldn’t come to an amicable solution to this,” Fuller said in an interview with The Heights. “They see this land as critical to their future, but we, the City of Newton, know it is critical to ours.”

BC purchased Webster Woods, which spans about 17 acres, from Congregation Mishkan Tefila for $20 million along with the former synagogue and parking lot. BC has used the building as a retreat center, activity center, and practice space for students. Since BC purchased the land, it has invested more than $5 million to repair the former synagogue and more than $1.5 million to repair a sewer line, according to BC’s press release. The statement said BC does not have any plans for the undeveloped land. 

Fuller has been in talks with the University since the beginning of her term in January of 2018, she said, to decide what will be done with Webster Woods. While the University did not have immediate plans for the forest, it also wouldn’t commit to preserving it as a forest, according to Fuller.

Part of her election campaign platform was a commitment to preserving the woods, and she promised to take a firm step toward permanently protecting them by 2020—two years into her term—the mayor said. She’s approaching the two-year mark, prompting her decision to claim the land under eminent domain.

“I’ve worked hard with Boston College to try to come to a resolution about this, and I am a person of my word,” Fuller said in an interview with The Heights. “I said it. I meant it. I believe it. We need to permanently save Webster Woods. So I’m moving forward with it now.”

The mayor was strategic about what land she is choosing to reclaim, she said—she is leaving the building and parking lot for BC to use. 

Newton’s Board of Aldermen—the former name for the City Council—wrote a letter to Setti Warren, the mayor at the time, before the sale to BC in 2016, asking that he ensure the property remain a wooded area. One longtime resident, Stephen Block, called for the area to be preserved so that it would be available for future generations in Newton in a letter to the editor in The Heights.

The mayor will work with the Community Preservation Committee, the Conservation Commission, and the City Council to get the funding needed to buy back the land.

Funds from the Community Preservation Act can only be used for land preservation, outdoor recreation facilities, historic preservation, or affordable housing, according to the mayor’s announcement. She will issue a formal request for funding in the coming weeks. 

Webster Woods is surrounded by 88 acres of forest land—the largest contiguous forest in Newton, Fuller said.

“Preserving the largest contiguous forest for Newton in perpetuity is essential,” Fuller said in her announcement last week. “We must protect this diverse eco-system and the habitat it provides for birds, mammals, amphibians and insects.”

This article has been updated for clarity.

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor

September 22, 2019