Northeastern scores major win in Nahant Superior Court, residents divided on outcome


Chris Butler

The Marine Science Center has been at the center of controversy in Nahant since Feb. 2018, when the expansion was first announced. Protests began in early 2018, and some residents continue their strong opposition now, more than five years later.

Grace Comer, campus editor

Last month Northeastern won a major victory against the small Massachusetts town of Nahant in its case to expand the Marine Science Center that has been in the works for over five years. In a Sept. 20 ruling, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Karp sided with the university allowing Northeastern to pursue construction on the land. 

This case centered around whether or not the university had “made a dedication of its property to the town or the public.” According to the summary judgment written by Karp, Northeastern did not intend and never committed to use the land as “an ecological preserve and for passive recreation,” a ruling that struck a blow against the Nahant residents who oppose Northeastern’s expansion. 

“The Town is disappointed by the Court’s ruling,” wrote Antonio Barletta, the town administrator, in a Sept. 22 email to The News on behalf of the Nahant Board of Selectmen. “The Town will consider all options moving forward. We maintain that the continued preservation of the site by the Town as vital open space and a vibrant habitat is in the best interests of our community.”

The Marine Science Center, or MSC, has been at the center of litigation since February 2018, when the university first announced its plans to expand the building, and residents are divided on the issue. This case is one of two between Northeastern and the town of Nahant, the other of which is ongoing and concerns Nahant’s right to utilize eminent domain to reclaim the land from Northeastern. 

Some residents, including those who oppose the eminent domain case, said they believe that Northeastern’s proposed construction would not damage the land as much as this case argued, especially considering the history of the peninsula.

“That property as late as the ‘50s was a barren wasteland. It had been a military reservation, it was literally leveled in World War II,” said Ken Carangelo, a member of the citizen’s group that opposes eminent domain. “The town declined to buy the property and Northeastern bought it … as soon as things started growing, it reverted to a more natural state. For a couple years of construction [like] what Northeastern wants to do, the stuff would grow back. That property hasn’t been in a natural state for probably 300 something years, so it seems a little bit artificial to be claiming that it’s a natural wonder of the world.”

The proposed 60,000 square foot expansion has raised many concerns over the years, which led to both court cases. According to Keep Nahant Wild, a volunteer group created in opposition to the MSC expansion, a major concern is that the seawater research will harm the lobsters and the lobster industry. 

“I live near the wharf so I know a lot of the lobstermen who come in and out and some of the fishermen, and they are really concerned about their livelihood,” said Susan Haggerty, a resident of Nahant and a Northeastern alum. “The amount of seawater that they’re going to be intaking and pumping out is going to really disrupt particularly the lobster beds, and the rest of the shellfish out there.” 

The MSC’s Frequently Asked Questions page addresses this concern, explaining that while the original plans included a system that would heat and cool incoming seawater, this element was removed following community opposition. The page also indicates that some research has shown no impact to the lobster population and that an updated intake system would actually decrease erosion and damage to the shore.

Beyond lobsters, Keep Nahant Wild states that the habitats of hundreds of rare and endangered birds and insects that call East Point home would be threatened by this expansion. Northeastern’s website states that the environmental impacts are currently impossible to predict or understand, as the project proposal is not fully developed. 

Additionally, residents worry that the town, which is just 1.24 square miles of land, does not have the space for a large expansion

“We’re the smallest town in the state of Massachusetts,” Haggerty said. “If you look at the plans for the expansion, the infrastructure of this town really can’t support it.”

Other residents believe the town’s concerns over the expansion are overblown, especially following Northeastern’s commitment to providing funding for Nahant infrastructure and schools, scholarships for Nahant residents who want to attend Northeastern and paid internships at the MSC.

“There were financial concerns that the town had in terms of additional strain on town resources,” Carangelo said. “Northeastern offered accomodations for that, actual cash contributions to the town and scholarships, the total number was something like $6 million.”

Carangelo said the financial strain imposed on the town by pursuing the eminent domain case is more worrying. A former member of the financial committee, he said he thinks that the $4.5 million gathered from the Community Preservation Committee and private donors to fund the case will not be enough. 

Instead, he said he believes Northeastern has “worked in very good faith” to accommodate the concerns, including implementing changes to the original plans to decrease the building’s footprint, which will only be expanded by approximately 15,000 square feet, and placing a conservation restriction to prevent future development on around 90% of the land owned by the university. 

When Northeastern purchased the approximately 21 acres of land of the former East Point Military Reservation in 1966, it was zoned as a Natural Resource District. The MSC was granted an exemption based on the Dover Amendment, a general law passed in 1950 that protected building rights of educational and religious organizations. Peter Capano, the state representative for the 11th Essex district, which includes Nahant, is among the legislators that have been working to modify the amendment.

“At that time, it was done for a good purpose to make it easier for educational and religious facilities to expand,” he told The News. “But that was almost 70 years ago, and since that time, things have changed. The environment was not a consideration in the 1950s and ‘60s like it is today. To be able to build by right without the town being able to interject their concerns, especially regarding the environment and open space over there, I don’t think is right.”

A spokesperson for Northeastern pointed to [email protected]’s story on the case and the MSC’s FAQ page to address residents’ concerns. The battle over the MSC is not over yet, as the courts are still deciding whether or not Nahant should be allowed to seize part of the land on East Point through eminent domain and residents remain divided on the case.

“It just seems like Northeastern has just dug their heels in and kind of run rough shot over the town,” Haggerty said. “I think this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back for the town’s relationship with the Marine Science Center. It really put a sour taste in everybody’s mouth.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated Oct. 11 at 2:00 p.m. to correct Northeastern’s statement on the case.