Local Government and Politics, News

Nahant vs. Northeastern: What’s next in the battle for East Point

NAHANT — After residents voted 647-271 last week to give the town authority to take control over a portion of the East Point property currently occupied by Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, many are wondering: What’s next in the ongoing fight to halt the school’s proposed expansion?

The Board of Selectmen will not immediately move to enact eminent domain, Chair Joshua Antrim said. 

Instead, the board hopes to use the law, which gives the government the right to purchase private property for public use, as a negotiation tool while the town continues its talks with the school. 

“We, the Board of Selectmen, have a clear mandate from the people that they’d like to see this conservation land preserved, and (they’d also like) to provide us some additional leverage in our negotiations with Northeastern,” Antrim said. “We’re hoping to negotiate with Northeastern to come up with a solution that respects the wishes of the townspeople and also allows Northeastern to pursue its academic goals.”

Last month, the selectmen voted to place an article on the annual Town Meeting warrant that, if passed, would allow Nahant to enact eminent domain over East Point — which was granted to the university by the federal government in 1966 — and declare the property a wildlife preserve, thus protecting it from future development. 

What followed the move was weeks of back-and-forth between the school and the town as Northeastern representatives argued Nahant was woefully unprepared for the undertaking.

During a virtual information session about the school’s expansion plans for the property, Ralph Martin, the school’s senior vice president and general counsel, said that if the town were to seek to enact eminent domain but ultimately choose to abandon the effort due to cost, the financial burden to taxpayers could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The selectmen later fired back, calling Northeastern’s assertion “scary talk,” and arguing that comments made by the school included “inaccurate and unsubstantiated” statements about legal costs associated with the proposal.

Following last week’s Town Meeting vote, Northeastern officials released a statement condemning the outcome, calling it a “setback for environmental research and coastal communities everywhere.”

However, Michelle Capano, a Nahant resident and member of the nonprofit environmental organization Nahant Preservation Trust, said she was pleased at the historic number of people who came out to vote in what she described as a monumental show of concern for the environment.  

“Not only did the eminent domain article pass by a 70 percent majority, but residents also voted for articles that support the preservation and planting of trees, and uphold the town’s Wetlands Protection by-law,” Capano said. 

She added it was “cathartic” that Article 22, which authorizes the eminent domain-taking of environmental easements at East Point, passed. 

“This gives Nahant a way forward, through negotiations or the taking,” she said. “We have a chance now to save the habitat, which is so important to many people, and especially to the birds and animals that make East Point their home.”

Some are still not convinced the effort will be fruitful for Nahant, However. 

During last week’s Town Meeting, some residents expressed concerns that by enacting eminent domain, the town would be unnecessarily inviting upon itself years of legal litigation and headaches, while at the same time ignoring Northeastern’s years of positive contributions to the community. 

Resident Ed Lonergan, who sat through the entire 6 ½-hour-long meeting, later called the decision a “terrible waste of local resources and spirit.”

“The shallow victory is also tainted because the extended process caused more than 100 voters to leave early,” he said. “Since the Board of Selectmen is specifically acting so as to obtain ‘important negotiating leverage,’ there is what I would characterize as a violation of Northeastern’s constitutional right to equal protection, a violation for which the town and the anonymous beneficiaries may be liable.”

He added: “I truly hope I am proved to be incorrect.”

The town voted to finance the eminent domain motion using a $1.5 million, 30-year Community Preservation Act (CPA) bond, which can be used to fund public areas of need, including affordable housing, historic resources, and recreational spaces. 

Residents also voted to fund moyion using a $3 million anonymous donation provided to the town earlier this month through Nahant Preservation Trust. If Nahant ultimately decides not to follow through with the taking, Antrim said the $3 million will be returned to the organization. 

Despite reservations about the long-term impacts Saturday’s meeting will have on Nahant’s relationship with Northeastern, Antrim said he’s hopeful the two will be able to come to an agreement that benefits both parties. 

On Thursday, he said he sent a letter expressing those sentiments to Northeastern’s legal counsel. 

“I’m an optimist,” Antrim said. “But I think Northeastern needs to understand they need to respect the wishes of the people of Nahant. That would be the first step towards returning to a good relationship.”

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