Boston College trustees and Newton officials are wrangling in Middlesex Superior Court over the value of about 15 acres of Webster Woods that the city took through eminent domain.
The city paid the university $15.2 million in December 2019 for the property at 300 Hammond Pond Parkway, but university trustees in a civil suit filed in February argued in court papers that the sum was “grossly unfair and totally inadequate” compensation for the land.
The property is close to about 160 acres of publicly owned open space along Hammond Pond Parkway, and city officials have said it was critical that the land be preserved in perpetuity as open space.
Trustees, in a Feb. 18 complaint, said Boston College bought the property as part of a larger 22-acre purchase from Congregation Mishkan Tefila in 2016. They said the city’s taking limits the use of the university’s remaining property, which includes the former congregation building and parking area.
“The Taking has deprived the Plaintiff of its land, trees, structures and other property which were all of great value, and caused damages and a diminution in value to the remaining portion of the Subject Property,” trustees said in court papers.
Trustees seek a jury trial, and argue that the city is bound to award just compensation for injury suffered and damages sustained due to the taking under the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article X of the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights.
Trustees also seek an adequate market rate of interest to be paid on the amount of any judgment obtained in the suit. They argued that the statutory interest required under state law is inadequate and “fails to meet the conditional standard of reasonableness” and deprives the university of just compensation.
In the city’s response to the trustees’ complaint, filed March 26, officials denied that the taking caused damages and a reduction in the value of the university’s remaining portion of the property.
The city argued that Boston College has been awarded just compensation for the property. While the university is entitled to interest, city officials denied applying the state statute is unfair or inadequate.
According to court papers, Boston College trustees said Webster Woods property and buildings are used by the university’s faculty and students, and are included in the university’s long-term educational facilities planning.
Newton city officials, in court papers, declined to weigh in on the university’s plans for the property.
“The City is without sufficient knowledge to admit or deny the allegations with regard to the Plaintiff’s use and plans with respect to the property prior to the taking,” the city said in a court filing.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, in a statement late last month, said: “Newton’s Law Department continues to work with outside counsel and filed a response to this complaint... asserting the City’s position that the amount BC received for the land is fair and appropriate.”
The long-simmering town-gown fight over the property began long before Fuller secured the unanimous support of the 24-member City Council to take the property through eminent domain late in 2019.
As a mayoral candidate in 2017, Fuller declared she would work to preserve Webster Woods, either through conservation restrictions or by an eminent domain taking of the undeveloped open space. As mayor, she began talks with Boston College about the property when she took office the following year, while also working with the city’s Conservation Commission and Preservation Committee on the issue.
After city officials approved the taking, Fuller said the city expected Boston College would challenge the acquisition and the value of the land. Officials had also approved an additional $740,000 to cover legal fees.
The issue was a rare public split between the city and university. The taking was supported by several local environmental and community groups under the slogan “Save Webster Woods.” Meanwhile, the university took its case directly to residents.
“Newton taxpayers deserve better than to be subjected to an ill-advised and expensive eminent domain proposal,” said Thomas Keady Jr., the university’s vice president for governmental and community affairs, in a letter.
City officials also faced a separate Superior Court suit related to the taking filed in November 2019 by a group of Newton residents including university trustees and BC president William Leahy.
According to court filings, they claimed Newton’s Preservation Committee did not follow its own guidelines when it supported the eminent domain taking, should not have used Community Preservation Fund money to pay legal fees, and failed to seek and leverage other money to pay for the Webster Woods taking. In October, Superior Court Judge Hélène Kazanjian dismissed those claims.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.