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Nahant considers eminent domain option amid debate over Northeastern University’s building plan

Northeastern University's Marine Science Center in Nahant.
Northeastern University's Marine Science Center in Nahant.Benjamin Bertsch/Northeastern University

Northeastern University’s plan to expand its Marine Science Center and the future of a town-owned housing site are the focus of articles stirring debate as Nahant prepares for its May 15 Annual Town Meeting.

Town Manager Antonio Barletta said that due to interest in the proposals — and a large amount of leftover business from last year’s abbreviated meeting — officials expect a hefty turnout of up to 800 residents at the event, which because of COVID-19 is being held in a park behind the fire station.

“The good news is that we have now held a meeting outside and were able to successfully offer a socially distanced environment for residents,” Barletta said, referring to last year’s meeting in September.

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The Board of Selectmen, which opposes Northeastern’s plan, is proposing that the town be authorized to use eminent domain to secure a conservation easement on a 12.5-acre portion of the site, a step that could potentially block the construction project.

A companion article would appropriate $1.5 million to fund part of the $4.5 million the town estimates the easement would cost, with Nahant’s Community Preservation Act revenues used to repay the debt. The remainder of the easement cost would be covered by $3 millionin private donations.

Northeastern proposes to construct a 55,000-square-foot addition within and atop an existing former military bunker that currently houses part of its marine center, located on a 20.4-acre oceanfront site at East Point.

On the marine center’s website, the university said it needs the expansion “to continue recruiting outstanding new faculty in a variety of fields, including climate-change mitigation and coastal sustainability.” It has said the project was designed to minimize visual or other impacts.

But opponents say the building is much too large and would destroy the natural character of the area.

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“This has been billed for the past 30 years as a natural resource area,” Selectman chair Joshua Antrim said of the Northeastern site, which abuts Lodge Park. “And that’s not what Northeastern has in mind. They have in mind the biggest non-military development in the history of Nahant.”

The dispute is the subject of ongoing litigation in which the nonprofit Nahant Preservation Trust, joined by the town and 28 residents, contends that the site is conservation land and as such cannot be developed without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, a claim Northeastern rejects.

Antrim said passage of the Town Meeting articles would not commit the town to using eminent domain, “but it gives us leverage” in negotiations. He said his board believes “a mutually agreeable negotiated solution is the best option.”

In an e-mailed comment about the Town Meeting vote, Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, referred to the university’s ongoing offer to provide Nahant with a free conservation restriction covering the site’s remaining undeveloped land if the project goes forward.

“The residents of Nahant have a clear choice. They can accept Northeastern’s offer of a conservation restriction — and receive the same land in question for free — or they can support the selectmen’s eminent domain gamble, which could saddle taxpayers for many years to come,” Armini said.

“The fact that the town’s Finance Committee refused to endorse the eminent domain gamble is very telling,” he added.

In its report to the Town Meeting, the Advisory and Finance Committee recommended passage of the CPA funding article, “but has chosen on a split vote ... to leave the decision of authorizing the taking ... to individual voters at town meeting.”

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Jeff Musman, a Nahant Preservation Trust board member, supports the eminent domain proposal.

“Our primary goal is to preserve this open space, which is one of the last undeveloped headlands between Boston and Gloucester,” he said, adding that the addition would not only “overshadow” the immediate site but “we will lose the beauty of Lodge Park.”

But town resident Ken Carangelo called the Town Meeting proposal “a misuse of eminent domain. There is not a legitimate public purpose here.”

“This is not that big a deal,” Carangelo said of Northeastern’s plan. “It’s a very low profile, environmentally friendly, and to my mind just the latest change to East Point over time.”

Carangelo noted that the property, far from being a “pristine wilderness,” has been heavily used over the centuries — including as a military bunker site in World War II.

The other article stirring debate concerns the so-called Coast Guard Housing, a 3.3-acre property on Castle Road and Goddard Drive where 12 ranch-style homes housed Army and Coast Guard personnel during and after World War II. The town bought the site in 2004 for $2.1 million and has rented the homes to private tenants since.

The article proposes that the town subdivide the land into 12 individual lots, and sell them to separate owners to build single-family homes. The anticipated proceeds would be used first to pay off the remaining $1.8 million in debt remaining from the town’s purchase of the property, and to cover the costs of preparing the site.

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Antrim said he anticipates the proposal will generate lively discussion because of the wide assortment of views in town about how the property should be used.

“We need to put a plan before town voters, and if they decide it’s not the right plan, the town can come up with another,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.