Addition to Dolan Pond to Become a Reality
Before she passed away in January of this year at age 104, Irene Forte had expressed a desire that much of her property be preserved as open space. With the passage of the CPA in Newton, a tool was finally in place to help fulfill her wishes. The Forte property at 76 Webster Park is a 1.15 acre parcel directly adjacent to the main entrance of the newly renovated Dolan Pond Conservation Area in West Newton. The Forte house, built in 1925, is in the Webster Park Historical District where many houses date from the 1840s.
Shortly after Irene Forte's death, the Newton Conservators were contacted by her nephew, who is the executor of her estate, to see if the Conservators were interested in the property. While he had received some property valuations as high as $1.5M, the estate was willing to keep the property off the market and offered it for $1.1M provided that our organization could put together a plan to save a good portion as open space and be able to raise the necessary funds in a reasonable amount of time.
This began a series of events which will likely result in a wonderful outcome for open space, community housing, and historical interests in the very near future. The Conservators Board devoted considerable time and energy planning a strategy for this acquisition. There were some lively neighborhood meetings sponsored by the Friends of Dolan Pond which took place to explain the project and to gather neighborhood input. Ultimately, it was decided to pursue funding by the Community Preservation Act (CPA) process in partnership with the Newton Housing Authority (NHA) and cosponsorship by the Newton Conservation Commission (with the assistance of Environmental Planner, Martha Aherin Horn). The Newton Historical Society wrote a letter of support. Harvey Epstein, special projects coordinator at NHA, put considerable energy into this project. Jonathan Hacker, director of the NHA, along with other staff members at NHA were very enthusiastic and attended many of the hearings and meetings that subsequently took place and helped to convince the various committees of the merits of this project. It was a great exercise in cooperation between open space, housing, and historical interests.
Jennifer Goldson, the CPA Planner in the Planning Department, assisted tremendously with advice and scheduling with the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) and the hearings that were required in the CPA process. The estate had set a strict timetable for completion of various phases: submission of a proposal, appraisal of the property, approval by the CPC, the aldermanic committees, and ultimately the full Board of Aldermen. The proposal was written and submitted to the CPC on May 14, where there was an impromptu opportunity to explain the project. The proposal addressed several key areas of the CPA, preservation of open space, creation of community housing, and historical preservation. Thanks to the many Conservators who responded to the appeal for letters of support which were included in the proposal. Due to the time-sensitive nature of the project, the CPC was able to consider the project rather than waiting until the next scheduled round of submissions in October. An appraisal was commissioned by the CPC and funded by the Conservators which valued the property, we believed, somewhat low at $0.9M.
On Thursday, June 5, there was a public hearing before the Community Preservation Committee with a a brief presentation, questions, and a great deal of public comment, both for and against the project. There was some opposition to the housing aspects of the project organized by an abutter who had an alternate approach. The CPC then held their own discussion (with two of our board members who were members recusing themselves). The discussion centered on the value of open space and the fact that the official appraisal of the property was less than the asking price. Ultimately they voted to recommend funding with the stipulation that at least two-thirds of the property be devoted to open space and that a good faith effort be made to work with the neighborhood on the design and density of the proposed housing units.
Another neighborhood meeting was held on June 14 where the housing portion of the proposal was restructured to include Newton's first Habitat for Humanity project (a small duplex addition to the original house). John Judge, Habitat director for Greater Boston, explained the program and attended subsequent hearings as well. This would provide an owner occupied component (with sweat equity) and had the strong support of the Green Decade Coalition and Bev Droz, volunteer coordinator for the City. The local Carpenter's union would be providing materials and volunteer labor as well.
The project would next be considered by the Ad Hoc CPA Committee, chaired by Amy Sangiolo, and the Finance Committee, chaired by Paul Coletti, of the Board of Aldermen. These committees, whose members included 15 out of the 24 aldermen, elected to meet jointly on June 23rd for the purpose of considering CPA matters. Many of the aldermen availed themselves of the opportunity to tour the property and house prior to the hearings and in general they were pleasantly surprised. Some made a complete turnaround in position and became advocates for the project. With the summer, not all members of either committee could attend. A number of questions were raised by the aldermen present which needed further research. A second session of the two committees was scheduled on June 30th to discuss the issues raised previously. Thanks to Doug Dickson, Jeffrey Sacks, and Andy Stern of the CPC who presented the case for the project to the aldermanic committees. Linda Shapiro, a neighbor of Irene's spoke eloquently for the project at both meetings. Sitting in as Finance Chair, Alderman Rick Lipof (who does appraisals professionally) gave some perspective on the valuation question and ultimately the committees both recommended funding with no dissenting votes but some abstentions.
After the meeting, Alderman Steve Linsky was helpful in approaching the estate again on the price issue and suggested that we commission an additional independent appraisal before the Board of Aldermen met (an estimation of value between $1.0 and $1.2M). The July 14th meeting of the Board of Aldermen was somewhat suspenseful. There was a motion to approve the spending but only up to the amount of the first appraisal. This would effectively kill the project since the estate was prepared to put the property on the market. After considerable discussion, this motion was rejected with only one vote in favor. More discussion followed and many aldermen spoke passionately for the project and the ultimate vote was 22-0 in favor of funding. There was some possibility of the motion being reconsidered over the next 24 hours (due to some question on the amount of legal frontage) but this was withdrawn after consultation between Amy Sangiolo and Ouida Young of the city's Law Department. After a 20 day waiting period, the measure became official in early August - meeting the estate's timetable for the funds to be approved.
A related background issue was a state law prohibiting municipalities from spending more than 125% of the average assessed value over the last three years. This restriction could effectively stop many CPA acquisitions. State Sen. Cynthia Creem had introduced a provision under the Municipal Relief Act that would alleviate this problem (with some advocacy by CPC member Andy Stern). It had passed in the Senate but needed to also be added to the measure approved by the House. It ultimately passed and was signed into law in August, making this particular CPA acquisition easier.
The project then became a matter of working out the appropriate legal agreements between the various involved parties. Bill Shaevel (of the firm of Shaevel and Krems) is representing the Newton Conservators on a pro bono basis. An important meeting organized by Gayle Smalley of the City's Legal Department was held between all the legal representatives (Newton Conservators, NHA, Habitat for Humanity, Conservation Commission) and some members of our own Open Space Committee. There were questions as to exactly how the transaction could take place with the various interests.
At press time, the most likely scenario is that the Newton Conservators will enter into a Purchase and Sale agreement with the estate with the funds coming from the city. The Newton Conservators may initially hold the property and then file for a subdivision into two lots one approximately 0.8 acres and one about 0.35 acres. The 0.8 acres would be conveyed to the Newton Conservation Commission and would add 10% area to the existing Dolan Pond Conservation Area. The 0.35 acre lot containing the original house may possibly be conveyed to one of the housing entities. A special permit will be sought for a duplex to be built behind and attached to the original house (with each duplex unit containing about 1250 sq. ft). The property would then be "condo-ized" with the original house being fully renovated by the NHA and then rented and the Habitat units being built and owner occupied (with the occupants required to put in several hundred hours of sweat equity and training). The closing is expected to take place this fall. Stay tuned for further developments.
Thanks to the Eric Reenstierna and the Conservators Board (and especially our Open Space Committee) for all their help and support on this project. Thanks to all who helped in any way in moving this project forward, the NHA, Habitat, Conservation Commission, Planning Department, the Mayor, CPC, the Board of Aldermen, the Webster Park neighborhood, and the Forte family who sought to follow Irene Forte's wishes. The 76 Webster Park acquisition represents a true CPA success story. Newton will gain new open space, three units of community housing and the restoration of a historical house that likely would have been demolished.