Metro, Featured Story

Newton City Council to Vote on Webster Woods Acquisition

Newton City Council will meet Monday night to vote on the proposal to acquire Webster Woods from Boston College via eminent domain. “A committee of the whole”—made up of all of the city councilors, except for two who were absent—voted to recommend all seven items in the proposal for approval on Nov. 25. 

The proposal includes Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s requests to acquire the woods via eminent domain and accept a $200,000 donation from the Friends of Webster Woods, an activist group that aims to preserve the woods. It also includes the Newton Community Preservation Committee (CPC)’s requests to acquire and appropriate $15 million to take the woods via eminent domain, $725,000 for legal fees, and $15,000 for costs related to conservation restriction. 

The councilors voted to recommend three of the seven items with a unanimous vote of 22-0, and the four other motions received 21 yes votes and one abstention. 

The meeting took place after a public hearing session on Nov. 6 and a CPC vote on Nov. 12 to provide the $15.7 million that will be used for the acquisition.

People on both sides of the issue attended the meeting, handing out placards supporting their causes. Depending on their allegiances, attendees wore buttons featuring either the words “I support BC” or a picture of a salamander, representing the yellow-spotted salamander population that lives in Webster Woods.  

Numerous BC students, as well as BC’s vice president of the Office of Governmental and Community Affairs Thomas Keady Jr.; Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn; and Athletics Director Martin Jarmond were in attendance. Public comments were not allowed, as the CPC allowed comment at the Nov. 6 public hearing session. 

After briefly introducing the proposal, the committee entered an approximately 40-minute long executive session to discuss strategies for the acquisition and related litigations before returning to the public. Executive sessions are not open to the public. 

Upon returning to the public session, several councilors commented on the proposal before the council voted. Lisle Baker, councilor of Ward 7 and member of the Newton mayor’s advisory panel on the acquisition, said that the City Council should seize the opportunity to acquire the land.

“This is an important enough public resource that it is important that we exercise the unusual power of eminent domain, so that we can secure [the woods for] future generations to enjoy,” Baker said. “I’ve been on the City Council now for almost 36 years, and I can say that rarely do we have, as a council, an opportunity to make a decision that will have literally a timeless impact. This is one of them.” 

Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn declined to comment until after Monday’s vote.

Susan Albright, councilor-at-large for Ward 2, requested details on the CPC’s plans for providing the public with easy access to and navigation of Webster Woods. Jennifer Steel, chief environmental planner for the city of Newton, said that while there is not yet a detailed plan, there are some projects in the works, such as renovating Hammond Pond Parkway and increasing signage in the woods.

Leonard Gentile, councilor-at-large of Ward 4, questioned the financial impacts of the acquisition on other projects that require Community Preservation Act funding. 

Chief operating officer Jonathan Yeo explained in a previous interview with The Heights that the cost of the acquisition would be paid to BC in the form of a bond over a 30-year period. This bonding, Yeo said, is common practice and would still allow the CPC to fund other projects.

Gentile asked about the possibility of also “bonding” the $740,000 cash would be appropriated directly to the legal department so that the CPC would have more money on hand to fund other projects. Mark Armstrong, chair of the CPC, responded that he would be open to maximizing funds through bonds.

Featured Image by Keara Hanlon / For The Heights

December 2, 2019