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Preservation Committee Passes Webster Woods Acquisition, City Council to Vote Soon

The Newton Community Preservation Committee (CPC) has voted to fund taking Webster Woods via eminent domain. Seven out of eight committee members voted to provide the $15.7 million that have been approved to acquire the land at Tuesday night’s CPC meeting. The vote will now go to the City Council, which will discuss the mayor’s proposal at its meeting on Nov. 25—a vote could occur during the first week of December.

A complaint and request for preliminary injunction was filed on November 5 in Middlesex Superior Court. If granted, this injunction would have prevented Tuesday’s planned meeting from occurring. The complaint states that the CPC violated an open-meeting law when it held “executive sessions” about Webster Woods which, unlike the rest of the meeting, were not open to the public. 

The plaintiffs listed include University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.; Joseph Quinn, a professor in the economics department and dean of the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences from 1999 to 2007; and Linda Reilly, executive director of operations in Auxiliary Services and a BC faculty member since 1976. Auxiliary Services is made up of nine business functions, including the bookstore, BC Dining Services and Eagle Print services. Christopher K. Barry-Smith, an associate justice, denied the plaintiffs’ request on Tuesday.

“Seizing by eminent domain 17 acres of Boston College’s property at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway is an extreme and ill-advised measure that will burden Newton taxpayers and come at the expense of 28 community projects vying for CPC funding,” Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn said in an email to The Heights.

The suit argues that only Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and the City Council have the authority to consider the purchase, lease, or exchange of Webster Woods. The CPC, in comparison, is only being asked to approve certain funding for the proposed acquisition. Therefore, according to the complaint, it is not allowed to hold any private sessions under the open-law meeting exemption in Section 21 a(3) and (6). The judge ruled that the CPC was entitled to it, since the CPC argued that it was considering the “collateral costs” of providing the funds and what costs might increase with litigation.

BC cited an Oct. 10 CPC meeting as being in violation of the open-meeting law in the suit—it said that the meeting was held to discuss Fuller’s request for Webster Woods over other potential projects the CPC could fund. The motion asked that the CPC be barred from meeting in an executive session to discuss funding the acquisition of BC’s property or holding any public meetings regarding it until the minutes and materials of the executive session on Oct. 10 are made public.

Barry-Smith wrote in his decision that a main point of BC’s argument was the lack of public discussion at the CPC regarding the policy decision about the funding request. Public discussion was held at the Oct. 10 and Nov. 6 meetings, Barry-Smith wrote, and reserving some topics for executive sessions does not negate the public discussion of policy issues.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller requested the money for taking Webster Woods in September. BC bought the land at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway in 2016, drawing concern from residents who said they were worried that the land would be developed. 

Robert Maloney, the only committee member who opposed the vote, said he was worried about “public access,” specifically how Newton will make the land accessible to residents. The City of Newton is looking for solutions to his concerns, according to chief operating officer Jonathan Yeo.

Fifteen million dollars are allocated for the acquisition of the woods, $15,000 are allocated to the Planning and Development Department from the CPC’s 2020 open space preserve, and $725,000 are to be set aside for litigation bills associated with taking the woods. The $15.2 million would be issued in the form of a bond over the course of a 30-year time period, Yeo said in an interview with The Heights. BC would receive a check, and the CPC would pay it as one would pay a mortgage, Yeo said.

Yeo said that the bond is common practice, and that the CPC would have money to fund other projects during that time period—especially since the CPC receives $4 million from the city and the state each year.

Two-thirds of the City Council is required to vote yes on the proposal in order for the project to be passed—they must approve both the funding and the acquisition of the land. If the City Council approves it, the city’s attorney will gather the funds and documents necessary to take the land via eminent domain.

“We’re hopeful to have this done during the calendar year,” Yeo said.

If the City Council votes no, Yeo said they would consider the objections to it and potentially rework the proposal.

A public hearing was held on Nov. 6 for residents and BC representatives to voice their opinions on the acquisition. Thomas Keady Jr., vice president of the Office of Governmental & Community Affairs at BC, represented BC. He said the University has already invested money into the land and it contributes to Newton’s economy, in addition to volunteer hours put in by students. 

“Mayor Fuller has announced an appraised value of the 17-acre parcel at $15.2 million, but the current value is likely far in excess of the amount budgeted by the City,” Dunn said in the email. “The difference between the appraisal and the award determined by the courts will be absorbed by Newton taxpayers, at the expense of other priorities, including school repairs, fire station upgrades, the teachers’ contract, and unfunded pension liabilities for municipal workers.”  

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor

November 13, 2019