History of the Newton Conservators

1960 to 1981

Throughout the 1950s, Newton was under enormous development pressures. Initially this appeared beneficial as little in the way of home construction had occurred through the 1930’s and 40’s and returning veterans and their families could find few affordable homes. The City of Newton reacted imaginatively to this shortage by taking a large land tract in Oak Hill by eminent domain and building affordable homes. As private construction companies followed suit in the next decade, shopping complexes and large industrial buildings took up more land in addition to that used for homes and schools. Ambitious developers proposed a number of high rise apartment and office 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 MDC began to sell off its woodland near Hammond Pond for development as did the privately-owned Norumbega Park. The state came forth with plans for a super east-west highway to cross 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. The new organization then tackled the major 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 for a public park for passive recreation. The remainder was developed by the Marriott Corporation. Periodically over the following decades, Marriott has endeavored to expand in one way or another. However, most Newton citizens feel that the size of the hotel is sufficient for this suburban “garden city”. Consequently, these actions have been voted down at the recommendation of the Newton Conservators, the Newton Conservation Commission and Auburndale community organizations.

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 adequately provide for 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. It has also established conservation restrictions and conservation areas on commercial and private land as bargaining chips for special permits. The Commission has made productive use of Newton’s Floodplain/Watershed Protection Ordinance of 1971 to restrict the development of wetlands so that they are preserved for wildlife and flood control.

In 1973, the Planning Committee of the Newton Board of Aldermen requested that the Conservation Commission make a study of 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 their findings served to strengthen the arguments for an outstanding program of land acquisition by the city in subsequent years.

The Newton Conservators have always relied on public education as a means of promoting its programs. A regularly appearing newsletter was created early in its history to inform its members of projects, issues, activities, threats to open spaces and how each person can help. Environmental education within the schools has been of particular concern. The summer Environmental Science Program for junior high and high school students was begun in 1967 as a joint project with the Newton School Department and the Conservation Commission. Since the program’s beginning, the Newton Conservators has given yearly scholarships and supporting funds, and supported the program fully between 1975 and 1981. Recently it established a grants program to provide funding for environmental science projects in Newton’s high schools.

In 1981, the Conservators published Visit Your Parks, a map locating the city’s public open spaces with detail maps of the individual parks and conservation areas depicting the walking trails. (An updated version of this popular publication was published in 2003.)

1981 to present

[write-up in process]

[see this 2009 article]

Accomplishments by Year

A 2000 essay on conservation issues in Newton