Throughout the 1950s, Newton had been under enormous development pressures. Initially this development appeared beneficial, because little home construction had occurred through the 1930’s and 40’s. As a result, returning veterans and their families had trouble finding affordable homes. The City of Newton reacted imaginatively to this shortage by taking by eminent domain a large tract of land in the village of Oak Hill and building affordable homes.
In this 1938 aerial photo, little of the area south of Route 9, except for the village of Upper Falls at the extreme left, had been developed. There was no development around Hammond Pond (in the upper right corner) or on either side of Hammond Pond Parkway (the future site of The Shops at Chestnut Hill, The Towers at Chestnut Hill, The Street at Chestnut Hill, and the former Temple Mishkan Tefila, which Boston College bought in 2016).
In the decade of the 1950s, private construction companies turned open space into shopping complexes and large industrial and office buildings as well as homes and apartment buildings. Boston College, which had been a 6-building complex, expanded rapidly, as did the Newton College of the Sacred Heart (now BC Law School). The Metropolitan District Commission (now DCR) sold off some of its woodlands near Hammond Pond for development, as did the privately-owned Norumbega Park. The Mass Pike Boston Extension increased development pressure in the city.
By 1960, Newton citizens became deeply concerned that their beautiful “garden city” would soon become a victim of uncontrolled construction. A small group of people from various sections of Newton met to discuss what could be done. Each of them had been involved in trying to protect open land in their own neighborhoods and together they formed the Newton Conservators, which was incorporated in 1961.
Allard M. Valentine, president of the Auburndale Cooperative Bank, and Murray I. Rothman, rabbi of Temple Shalom, were concerned about plans first for a race track and then for high rise buildings proposed for Norumbega Park. Benjamin F. Shattuck, a former alderman, saw developers replacing fine old Victorian houses in Newton Corner with brick apartment complexes of unimaginative design. Jack M. Roberts and Helen A. Heyn, both members of the Oak Hill District Improvement Association, had seen most of the farm and woodland of their village disappear, and then the Shaw Estate at the edge of the Charles River came up for sale. The first development proposal for this land included three 20-story apartment buildings. When this was rejected, the Sylvania Corporation proposed constructing a vast science park on the same site. Dr. Richard Lennihan, Jr. found Edmands Park in Newtonville badly neglected and fast becoming a handy local dump. Deborah Howard, involved in ornithology research for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, was concerned that wildlife habitats would soon be decimated in Newton. Lorenz F. Muther, state representative and director of the Newton Taxpayers Association, felt strongly that a balance was needed between developed space and open areas.
The Conservators initiated several small, successful projects that earned the new organization publicity and credibility. The city was persuaded to amend its zoning laws to prohibit developers from stripping and selling loam and sod before construction. Conservators joined together with high school students to plant 100 evergreen trees in Edmands Park.
In 1962, the new organization tackled the issue of the reuse of the privately owned Norumbega amusement park on the Charles River. After a number of years of petitions, challenges, and public hearings, the Newton Conservators, working together with Auburndale neighborhood organizations, persuaded the city to purchase more than half of the land as Norumbega Park. The remainder was developed as a hotel by the Marriott Corporation. The Conservators lobbied successfully to protect the shoreline and set limits on the hotel’s size both then and in subsequent years when the Marriott proposed further development.
The land development battles of the early 1960s made it clear that Newton needed a Conservation Commission, which was created at the urging of the Conservators in 1966. The Conservators has since worked closely with this city commission to preserve the best of Newton’s remaining open spaces and to guide development to address environmental concerns. To this end, the city has accepted bequests of land, taken land by eminent domain, and purchased land outright for parks and conservation areas. In 1968, the Conservators assisted the Conservation Commission in creating Newton’s largest conservation area at Webster Woods.
The Conservators received a gift of land from Patricia Ordway to preserve Ordway Park in 1971.
In 1973, the Board of Aldermen requested that the Conservation Commission study the remaining open land in the city and establish priorities for possible acquisition. The Conservators Open Space Committee made an independent survey, and the close agreement between the findings of the two studies strengthened the arguments for a program of land acquisition by the city in subsequent years.
Throughout the 1970s, the Conservators were instrumental in creating many key conservation areas in the city including Kennard Conservation Area, Houghton Garden, Dolan Pond Conservation Area, and Sawmill Brook Conservation Area.
Along with land acquisition and preservation, the Newton Conservators has always believed strongly in educating the public as a means of promoting the protection of open space. Since its creation, the Conservators has published a newsletter as a tool to inform our members and others of environmental issues, threats to open space, activities and projects, and how to get involved. In addition, to make environmental education available to junior high and high school students in Newton, the Conservators established the summer Environmental Science Program in 1967 as a joint project with the Newton Public Schools and the Conservation Commission. The program celebrated its 50th year in 2017 and continues to thrive and grow, with annual financial support from the Conservators.
1980s and 1990s
In 1981, the Conservators published Visit Your Parks, a guide to Newton’s public open spaces containing detailed maps of individual parks and conservation areas and their walking trails. This publication was very popular with visitors to Newton’s open spaces and an updated version was published in 2003 (and subsequently revised several times).
During the 80s and 90s, the Conservators assisted in creating the Flowed Meadow Conservation Area and helped to develop Nahanton Park. In addition, the Conservators was a key player in the redevelopment of the park and playing fields at the former Weeks School.
Continuing with our environmental education efforts and to foster open-space conservation and study, the Conservators established a grants program in 1992 to provide funding for conservation-related projects to Newton teachers, community groups, and other organizations. This grants program has been an excellent way for the Conservators to work collaboratively with the community and reach new audiences with our conservation message.
2000 and beyond
The Conservators played a leading role in several major open space acquisitions by the City in the early years of the 21st century. Many of our recent successes have come through funding from the Community Preservation Act, which Newton voters adopted in 2000. Our advocacy and public education programs were integral to winning voter approval of the CPA in Newton.
In 2003, we assisted the City in using CPA funds to buy a tract of land adjacent to Dolan Pond Conservation Area, and to partner with Habitat for Humanity to build several units of affordable housing on the previously-developed portion of the land.
Advocacy by the Conservators from 2003 through 2006 was critical in persuading the City to partner with a developer to save a large portion of Kesseler Woods. The trail system in the woods is under development in 2019.
Newton’s last farm was saved from development in 2004 when the Newton Board of Aldermen approved the proposal by the Conservators to use CPA funds to buy the former Angino Farm, and to reopen it as Newton Community Farm. The Conservators, under the leadership of Doug Dickson, played a critical role in saving the farm, including negotiating the purchase from the Angino estate.
Although the Conservators works to protect land primarily through advocacy of the purchase of threatened open space by the City of Newton, we also have a legal responsibility to protect open space that has been donated to us, as well as land on which we hold a conservation restriction. The Conservators owns three parcels of land, which were donated to us by conservationists who wanted to ensure that their land would be preserved. The Conservators also holds a legal conservation restriction on seven parcels of land throughout the City of Newton including: Wilson Conservation Area, Waban Hill Reservoir, Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, Newton Community Farm, land adjacent to Crystal Lake, Webster Park (Dolan Pond), and Elgin Street (Wilmerding) Conservation Land. Additionally, as of 2019 we have three pending conservation restrictions in Kesseler Woods, at 30 Wabasso Street in the Flowed Meadow Conservation Area, and at 20 Rogers Street, adjacent to the Crystal Lake bath house.
We have been leaders in the effort to save Webster Woods after the 2016 purchase by Boston College of land in Webster Conservation Area.