Photo courtesy of Councilor-elect Bill Humphrey / Twitter

Newton City Council Votes to Assert Eminent Domain Over Webster Woods Property

The Newton City Council voted unanimously on Monday night in favor of a proposal to preserve the Webster Woods by asserting eminent domain over property owned by Boston College at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway.

The 25-acre property at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway was purchased by BC from the Congregation Mishkan Tefila for $20 million in 2016. The property includes the former temple building, parking lots, and 17.4 acres of undeveloped forest. Located between two areas of protected forest maintained by the Newton Conservation Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the property in dispute is part of the Webster Woods, the city’s largest continuous forest.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller announced a proposal to use eminent domain to ensure the preservation of the Webster Woods in September. Prior to the City Council’s vote, the Newton Community Preservation Committee (NCPC) voted to advance the mayor’s proposal in 7-1 vote on Nov. 12.

The City Council passed the NCPC’s recommended proposal, which includes the appropriation of $15 million to acquire the Webster Woods property by eminent domain, as well as the allocation of $725,000 for legal fees and $15,000 for conservation restriction. Further, the City Council approved the acceptance of a $200,000 donation from the Friends of Webster Woods, a local organization that advocates for the preservation of the Webster Woods. 

In response, BC has taken legal action to prevent acquisition by eminent domain. While a September statement declared that BC has not made any proposals for the development of 17-acre forest, a recent lawsuit filed by the university to prevent the city from asserting eminent domain stated that “the university has plans in progress and anticipates future development of the entire HPP property.”

In a statement to The Gavel, University Spokesman Jack Dunn expressed disappointment with the results of the City Council’s vote and claimed that “this costly ordeal could have been avoided if the mayor had not cut off negotiations, or had agreed to a land swap.”

“Now we will challenge the taking and the mayor's appraisal of the land's value in court,” Dunn continued. “Our contention remains that the mayor and City Council have grossly underestimated the value of the property and the legal cost associated with its seizure.”

Members of Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC) and EcoPledge, two student organizations that have spoken out against the university’s plans to develop the Webster Woods property, were present at Monday’s City Council meeting to hear the final vote.

In an email to The Gavel, CJBC member Kyle Rosenthal said that students’ concerns about the environmental impact of the loss of the woods stem from both secular and religious values, which are especially meaningful given BC’s Jesuit, Catholic tradition.

“The woods act as stormwater mitigation, climate change mitigation, and are home to a rare species,” said Rosenthal. “They are both a physical and symbolic embodiment of climate justice and BC's actions are reflective of a lack of care for such justice.” 

Over the past few weeks, members of CJBC and EcoPledge have advocated for the preservation of the Webster Woods by attending and speaking at town meetings, as well as by contacting city councilors, the mayor’s office, and stakeholders in the Newton community to express support for the eminent domain proposal.

The student organizations also spread a petition calling for the preservation of the Webster Woods, which has been signed by about 600 students, alumni, and community members, according to Rosenthal.  

“We anticipate some pushback and definitely legal action by BC, but we hope that administrators are continuing to recognize the significant student, alumni, and faculty support for the protection of the woods,” said Rosenthal. “We also feel, particularly at this stage after tonight's vote, that any further action by BC is a waste of time and money that could be better used for other parts of campus.”

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