In 2016, Congregation Mishkan Tefila sold to Boston College approximately 25 acres of mostly wooded land that is surrounded by publicly owned conservation land. The city-owned Webster Conservation Area is to the north and west, and the state-owned Hammond Pond Reservation is to the south and east. The land owned by Boston College was donated to the state in 1916 by Edwin Webster, for use as conservation land. Until 1954, it was part of Hammond Pond Reservation.
A multi-year effort by the Friends of Webster Woods, the Newton Conservators, and others led to a unanimous vote of the Newton City Council in December 2019 to take 17 wooded acres of Webster Woods from Boston College by an eminent domain purchase. The taking was filed on December 24th.
History of the Effort to Save the Woods
Note: This section was written when the fate of the woods was uncertain, and has not been edited to reflect the successful effort to save the woods.
The parcel, 300 Hammond Pond Parkway, is parcel # 65008 0003 in the Newton Assessors’ Database. Its approximate boundaries are shown in yellow in the aerial photo at left.
The college’s precise plans for the wooded portion of its land are unknown. However, construction of new buildings on some or most of the land is extremely likely. In a November 2019 lawsuit against the Community Preservation Committee, Boston College President William P. Leahy, S.J., declared that “The University has plans in progress and anticipates future development of the entire HPP [Hammond Pond Parkway] Property.” [emphasis added] Boston College is exempt from many local zoning rules under the state’s “Dover Amendment.”
In 1903, Edwin Webster donated 100 acres of forest to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for use as conservation land.
The 25 acres now owned by Boston College was part of the Hammond Pond Reservation until 1954, when the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC; the predecessor of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation) sold it to the temple for the below-market price of $400 an acre. (Just 14 years later, the City of Newton used its power of eminent domain to purchase other land in Webster Woods for a price of $7,940 per acre, or twenty times as much.)
The 1954 sale was controversial. The Boston Globe reported that the Newton Board of Aldermen voted 15 to 3 to oppose the sale, and the MDC board approved the sale by a margin of only 3 votes to 2. Following the vote to authorize the sale, Newton created a new Board of Park Commissioners in an attempt to block the sale. The city then went to court, but lost its lawsuit.
In 1972 Massachusetts voters added to the state constitution Article 97, a measure “Establishing the right of the people to a clean environment.” One of its provisions is a requirement that state and local governments must get a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before converting park or conservation land to other purposes. If this provision had been in place in 1954, it is highly unlikely that the land sale to the temple would have happened.
The property acquired by Boston College includes Bare Pond, a vernal pool that has been the site of Newton Conservators walks. The image below superimposes an aerial photo of the temple’s buildings and parking lots onto a map of the woods. Note that the main east-west trails are on land now owned by Boston College, which is in white on this map.
Bare Pond (and a small buffer zone around it) is protected from development by state wetlands regulations. However, most of the land could be developed by Boston College for use as dorms, classroom or office buildings, or parking lots. Such development would be a devastating blow to a beloved conservation area.
The site development plan shown above was presented to the temple many years ago, and is not currently under consideration. However, it gives an idea of the extent of development that might be possible on the land.
The Friends of Webster Woods has been created to advocate for preservation of this important tract of open space. Follow them on Facebook. In July 2017, the Friends wrote a letter to the candidates for mayor asking them to pledge to take specific steps to preserve Webster Woods. The Conservators supported the FOWW letter, and our Board of Directors also wrote to the candidates with details about our position. We received this reply from candidate Ruthanne Fuller, who was elected mayor in November 2017.
In early 2018, Mayor Fuller appointed a panel to advise her on how to protect the woods. Conservators Director (and former President) Beth Wilkinson is chair of the advisory panel, which also includes Conservators Directors Peter Barrer and Dan Brody.
In February 2019, Boston College began construction of a road salt storage facility on the rear parking lot.
In September 2019, Mayor Fuller proposed that the City of Newton act to protect 17 acres of Webster Woods.
In October, Mayor Fuller requested that the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) authorize bonds to finance the purchase of the 17 acres. The Newton Conservators supports this proposal.
On November 6, the CPC held a public hearing on the proposal.
On November 25th, the City Council gave preliminary approval to the proposal.
On December 2nd, the City Council voted unanimously to authorize the eminent domain taking of Webster Woods.
On December 24th, the taking of the land was filed at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds.
What you can do
Contact members of the Newton City Council to thank them for their unanimous vote to approve Mayor Fuller’s plan to preserve this conservation land.
Follow the Friends of Webster Woods on Facebook
The science of Webster Woods, by BU professor and Conservators Advisor Richard Primack
Click the first image to view as a slideshow. Then swipe, click the on-screen arrows, or use your arrow keys to move through the slides.
Post first published September 22, 2016