Newton Mayor Seeks $15.7 Million to Take Land from BC Via Eminent Domain

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is asking for $15.7 million to take Webster Woods back from Boston College via eminent domain. She filed an application for a funding request with the Newton Community Preservation Committee on Tuesday.

The woods were appraised to have a market value of $15.2 million—under eminent domain, the government can take land from private groups as long as it pays them fair market value and maintains the land for public use. The additional funds were requested for legal fees and fees associated with acquiring land by eminent domain.

“When we acquire the woods, the Conservation Commission will care for the property and be its custodian,” the mayor said in a statement. “Preserving Webster Woods for Newton in perpetuity is essential.”

The proposal is aimed at taking back 17.4 of the roughly 25 acres owned by BC, which it purchased from Congregation Mishkan Tefila for $20 million in 2016. The sale sparked uproar in the community from people who feared the land would be developed—one group, Friends of Webster Woods, formed to advocate for the woods.

A map of the land Ruthanne Fuller plans to take via eminent domain (newtonma.gov)

“We continue to oppose Mayor Fuller’s plan to seize the property we purchased at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway by eminent domain,” said Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn in an email to The Heights.  “We plan to oppose the taking through every means possible. 

“The City of Newton passed on the opportunity to acquire the property when congregation Mishkan Tefila approached them in 2014-2015.  Attempting to take the land by eminent domain demonstrates a lack of planning, and a disregard for Newton’s largest employer and all property owners within the city.”

The mayor’s legal actions come after she unsuccessfully tried to strike an agreement with BC regarding the woods, according to Barney Heath, director of Newton City Planning and a member of the Webster Woods advisory panel that was created more than one year ago. Fuller will still attempt to work with BC to come to a conclusion, she said in her statement. 

A public hearing for residents to voice their opinions is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at City Hall. If the Community Preservation Commission approves the funds, the proposal will move to the City Council for a vote. While there is no set date for a decision on the funding request, Heath said the city expects to hear back sometime in either November or December. 

“BC is then entitled to challenge the price paid for the acquisition, and they have a period of up to three years to challenge that,” Heath said. “But the challenge is only on the price of the property at that point.”

BC has said it will pursue all legal options to keep the woods.

Beth Wilkinson, chair of the Webster Woods Advisory Panel, said it doesn’t matter who purchased the woods—the goal is to save them.

“Ideally, Boston College and the City of Newton would be able to reach an agreement on how to go about doing that, but I think doing that [saving the woods] has to be the focus,” she said.

The proposal for funds cites the community benefits of a trail and Bare Pond. The woods also have “climate change mitigation value” in that it reduces heat island effect, carbon sink, and severe storm mitigation, Fuller’s proposal says. Webster Woods is part of the largest contiguous forest in Newton, as it’s surrounded by 88 acres.

BC has not announced any plans for the 17 acres of woods.

“Webster Woods is really important because one, it’s beautiful virgin forested land on its own, but it is particularly important because it connects two tracks of city-owned and state-owned forests,” said Wilkinson. 

“If it were to be developed it would negatively affect the whole forested area, not just that little piece. Together those three tracks of forested land make up the largest continuous area of open space in Newton.”

If the land is developed, salamanders will not have the correct habitat in which to lay eggs and the flow of watershed will be disturbed, Wilkinson said, and the biodiversity of the woods is irreplaceable.

“My concern is that unfortunately it is impossible to be ethical and responsible in developing a forest that is home to all of this biological diversity, to the variety of plants and animals,” she said.

The mayor announced that she would be seeking to take the land from BC via eminent domain last month. Fuller said that 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.

This article has been updated for clarity.

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor