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Public Hearing Held in Newton for Webster Woods Acquisition

The Community Preservation Committee (CPC) of Newton held a public hearing session regarding taking Webster Woods from Boston College through eminent domain on Wednesday night. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller first announced her plans to secure funds for the acquisition in September. The mayor has requested $15.7 million from the CPC to take the woods.

Alice Ingerson, CPC staff members, and other sponsors of the acquisition program gave brief presentations about the timeline of events for acquiring Webster Woods, and the means and potential effects of taking the land via eminent domain.

Lisle Baker, Ward 7 councilor—where Webster Woods is located—represented the City Council at the hearing. Baker said that in 2015 the City Council—then the Board of Aldermen—passed a unanimous resolution urging the mayor to preserve the Webster Woods. Baker requested that the CPC vote to support the acquisition, so that the City Council can vote on it.

Thomas Keady Jr., vice president of the Office of Governmental & Community Affairs at BC, represented BC at the hearing, speaking on behalf of University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. Keady said that BC contributes to the city in various ways, from its economic ties with the city to the thousands of student volunteer hours spent in the city.

Keady spoke of the $5 million BC spent for renovations and the $1.5 million already used to repair a broken sewer line, as well as how the University’s project of constructing a road salt storage facility was previously approved by the city. He also said that the city has other municipal projects that compete for funds with the acquisition of Webster Woods.

“With all the serious financial issues facing the City of Newton such as unresolved Newton teachers’ contract as well as other unions, unfunded pension liabilities, we request the Community Preservation Committee reject the city’s proposal to use all of the Community Preservation Act to purchase Webster Woods,” Keady said.

The Friends of Webster Woods—an organization that aims to preserve the Webster Woods—voiced its support for taking the land via eminent domain. 

“Rarely do you get a chance like this to protect such important land forever,” said Suzanne Berne, a Newton resident and BC professor in the English department. “The Friends of the Webster Woods and the people of Newton are counting on you to seize this opportunity.”

Richard D. Primack, a lifelong resident of Newton and professor of biology at Boston University, said that the Webster Woods are important for research because of its large habitat and wide array of species. Mentioning several studies conducted in the woods by members of BU—one about bird behavior, another about pollution diminishing deeper in the woods, and one about noise pollution—Primack said that the woods have a research value that is not limited to its immediate peripherals, and constructions by BC will deprive the woods of such values.

“If these woods are fragmented by Boston College building at the center of them, their value for research and education will be greatly diminished,” Primack said.

BC has said it does not currently have any plans for developing the land.

Representatives from two BC student organizations, EcoPledge and Climate Justice, voiced their support for the acquisition at the hearing as well. Stevie Walker, president of EcoPledge and MCAS ’21, and Kyle Rosenthal, representative for Climate Justice and CSOM ’21, spoke.

“Maintaining the continuity of the Webster conservation area is of the utmost importance and we deplore any decisions made by the Boston College administration to develop the property…” Walker said. 

Peter Mahoney, a resident of Newton and BC ’87, said that he and his wife Joanne, BC ’87, received a letter signed by Leahy and Peter K. Markell, then-chairman of the BC Board of Trustees. The letter requested that they voice their support of the University on the matter and called the city’s actions “unfair” and “ill-advised,” Mahoney said.  

Mahoney said that he refused to support the University because he found issues in the letter, citing among them BC’s lack of commitment to preserve the woods, its claim of financial strains incurred by the acquisition, and its inappropriate comparison between the price of developed campuses and undeveloped land.

“While I recognize the fact that the land transaction was not handled well by the city in the past, the city is now making a fair offer to an important partner and neighbor to preserve a critical resource for the future,” Mahoney said. “I implore BC to stand down from the fight for the greater good, or, as the Jesuit Latin scholars might say, ad maius bonum.”

Justin Traxler, president of Newton Girls’ Soccer, spoke on behalf of several Newton athletic organizations. Due to the minimal attention received in the past decades, he said, the fields are in poor conditions. Traxler urged the city to invest more in these fields instead of using all of the money for Webster Woods.

“Hundreds of our youths play on these fields every day during spring and fall,” Traxler said. “We think that they deserve more. We think a small portion of the amount of money being allocated to this project could go an extremely long way in helping these athletics in our facilities.”

Dawn Davis, a Newton resident living on Prentice Road, said that she wants the woods to be preserved, but doesn’t understand why the city didn’t take actions to preserve them back in 2015, when BC bought the property. She is also concerned about the legal battles that might ensue after the acquisition, which will put extra burden on taxpayers. The possible effects on the public image of the city caused by the acquisition might also be an issue, Davis said.

“I’m hoping that there’s a bridge that we can get to that will help us avoid the legal battle and potentially the deterioration of [the relationship] with a good neighbor,” Davis said. 

Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn could not be immediately reached for comment.

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor

November 7, 2019

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