For three years, Northeastern University has been in discussions with Nahant residents and town officials about the university’s proposed renovation at East Point. We appreciate that while any new development attracts a variety of opinions, much of the debate about the project has generated a great deal of misinformation and hyperbole.
This atmosphere makes it difficult for people to hear and evaluate the facts. We are sending this update to convey Northeastern’s thoughts about the project and to clarify misconceptions made by opponents, including the Board of Selectmen and Nahant Preservation Trust (NPT).
Throughout these public and private discussions, we have consistently articulated five truths that have often been obscured or ignored:
- Northeastern’s Marine Science Center (MSC) is involved in researching critical sustainability issues—such as climate change and sea level rise—that are important to coastal communities, including the town of Nahant;
- Northeastern’s project anticipates a renovation that will be largely erected within and atop an existing concrete bunker. As a result, only 11,OOO sq. ft. of the project will be outside of the existing bunker footprint;
- About 18,000 sq. ft. of the project will have no visual impact because it will be buried underground within the existing bunker footprint, a pre-existing 80,000 sq. ft. building. The part of the renovation that will be visible is one story. This element will be heavily landscaped and screened by trees and other vegetation. It will also have a green roof (see accompanying illustrations);
- The small addition that extends from the side of the existing bunker footprint is an area that was heavily altered and disturbed during the construction of the World War II bunker. To be clear, no ecologically pristine area will be disturbed to create the MSC renovation; and
- Building the MSC renovation within and atop the bunker is the most environmentally conscious approach because neither the bunker nor the new construction would be in the floodplain, the project would be an adaptive reuse of an existing structure in an area that was already previously disturbed, and it would employ an environmentally sensitive thermal heating and cooling system.
FALSE DEDICATION CLAIM AND WASTE OF TOWN RESOURCES
Opponents have created various fictions and distractions, and are spending a substantial amount of the Town’s financial resources to pursue a reckless legal strategy that will ultimately be defeated. The Town and Nahant Preservation Trust are pursuing a fabricated claim: that over fifty years ago—before Northeastern acquired the property—the university made a “dedication” of its East Point land to the public and committed to creating and preserving a public wildlife area on it. Plainly stated, you cannot “dedicate” something you do not own.
The NPT and Town lawsuit ignores the actual history of East Point. That history is verifiable by checking existing documents and records, which demonstrate the following:
- In 1964, Nahant declined to purchase the entire 28-acre site (including what is now Lodge Park) because the Town didn’t want to have the cost or liability of developing and maintaining the site for a park and because the park would be open to the general public, not just Nahant residents;
- The Northeastern property is “Registered Land.” Legally, any interest like the one claimed by the Town against Northeastern’s Registered Land would have to be shown on Northeastern’s Land Court Certificate of Title. It is not;
- When Northeastern offered to acquire the property, the Town actively supported the university’s intent to “take over and develop the property” for Northeastern’s educational and research purposes;
- The deed by which the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) transferred the property to Northeastern specifically requires that it be used for educational and research purposes;
- At the time Northeastern acquired the property, it had been devastated by decades of military use and the land on top of Murphy Bunker and to the east of the cliffs and shoreline was virtually barren;
- The deed by which HEW transferred the property to Northeastern did not require the university to create an ecological preserve on this barren landscape and was devoid of any reference to the easement by dedication now claimed by the Town and NPT;
- The deed only required Northeastern to preserve a 20-foot access easement across its property for the U.S. Navy—which retained the adjacent 8.3-acre site (later to become Lodge Park);
- Later, in the mid-1970s, the Town acquired the adjacent 8.3-acre site;
- The Town initially used the 8.3-acre site as a dump;
- Eventually, in the 1990s, Lodge Park was created by “capping” the dump with landfill;
- As the Town and NPT well know, the Dover Amendment permits educational institutions like Northeastern to develop buildings on its property, notwithstanding the zoning of the property by the Town as a “Natural Resource” district; and
- Under the Dover Amendment—recently reaffirmed by the Massachusetts Attorney General—the Town cannot prohibit educational use and development of Northeastern’s property as the use table of the Town’s zoning bylaw makes clear.
The Board of Selectmen and others have asked why Northeastern cannot build on the existing Edwards site. Among the problems with expansion in that area are cost, environmental and practical constraints due to the existing property lines, the expense of demolishing the underground bunker that constrains the Edwards site, and the proximity of the floodplain. Alternatively, the Murphy Bunker site is set further back from existing sightlines of many neighboring residents, a good portion of the MSC renovation would be buried inside the existing bunker, and it is outside of the existing floodplain.
Northeastern has informed the Town that it is willing to consider any other alternative that does not make the project substantially more expensive, places the MSC in an environmentally-vulnerable location, or compromises the project’s goal of being a LEED Gold building. To date, no alternative has been presented by the Town or NPT.
EMINENT DOMAIN IS UNNECESARY AND WILL CREATE AN EXPENSIVE BURDEN ON NAHANT RESIDENTS
Now, the Board of Selectmen is threatening an eminent domain action—an expensive legal process that exists for municipalities to take land for public purposes. The Town is proposing to pay hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars (on top of the money it has already spent on the dedication legal claim) to exercise the power of eminent domain to take land that the Town claims Northeastern has already dedicated to it. Why would the Town use property tax revenue to pay Northeastern millions of dollars (if the taking is successful) to take a property the Town claims it already owns? That question prompts several other questions that deserve honest answers:
- How much has the Town already spent to pursue the “dedication” claim? Starting an eminent domain proceeding would be an admission by the Town that they have wasted years, and your tax dollars—tens if not hundreds of thousands—on a useless proceeding;
- What will the pursuit of an eminent domain strategy cost residents in legal fees (if the Town is first successful in establishing the validity of the taking) and in actual payments to Northeastern University?;
- The Town’s outside eminent domain attorney from a large Boston law firm has publicly estimated that Nahant should only expect to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 in legal fees. This is an unrealistic estimate. This same attorney is representing Boston College in its legal action challenging the City of Newton’s eminent domain taking of BC property. The City of Newton has set aside $725,000 to defend its taking in the BC Case;
- The same attorney advised Nahant residents that the validity of any taking by the Town could not, as a practical matter, be challenged. That is not correct. The validity of a taking is always subject to challenge. In the BC case, BC has stated that it intends to challenge the validity of the taking as well as the $15 million the City of Newton determined to be the value for taking 17 acres of land for “conservation purposes”;
- The Town’s estimate of what a taking will cost the taxpayers in damages is deceptive because it uses the value of “conservation land” as the basis for appraising Northeastern’s land at $150K an acre. Importantly, Northeastern’s land is not conservation land, which is valued far lower than other forms of developable land. The proper measure of value in eminent domain cases is the property’s highest value, not its lowest value. In this case, the highest value likely would be determined by measuring what another university, with development rights protected by the Dover Amendment, would pay for the property; and
- If the city of Newton is paying $15 million to BC for taking 17 acres of conservation land—a payment BC will challenge as far too meager—what is 20 acres of oceanfront developable land worth? An easy answer is “far more than the BC property.” Indeed, the eminent domain attorney the Town has retained surely knows that juries often find that the taking authority has vastly underpaid, and assess damages at many times the “pro tanto” payment. Are Nahant residents prepared to pay 2, 3, 4 times or more the low pro tanto estimate, ending up with a bill of tens of millions of dollars that would significantly raise taxes, saddle the town with debt, and impair the town’s ability to pay for necessary infrastructure improvements?
NORTHEASTERN’S OFFER TO CREATE CONSERVATION EASEMENT WOULD ACHIEVE SAME BENEFITS AT NO COST TO THE TOWN
Once the project is completed, Northeastern has offered to place a conservation restriction on the balance of its undeveloped property, giving the town at no cost the kinds of protections a taking might accomplish, without the exorbitant legal bills and the sure to be higher price tag for the taking itself (which could force a substantial residential tax increase). What the Selectmen propose to do poses serious risk to the financial health of the town.
This communication is not our first effort to convey the truth about the MSC renovation to the broader Nahant citizenry, nor will it be the last. We invite you to visit nahant.northeastern.edu and facebook.com/northeastern.msc for more information.