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WESTON

Regis plan returns to Land Court

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / March 12, 2009
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A controversial plan by Regis College to build an on-campus retirement village returns to Massachusetts Land Court after town officials refused to approve the project under the Dover Amendment, a state law that allows churches and schools to bypass local zoning regulations.

Last week, Weston's Zoning Board of Appeals dealt Regis another setback in its three-year effort to build the 365-unit complex, to be called Regis East, by determining that it does not qualify for Dover protections.

Regis officials say they are still committed to the project, and neighbors of the college say they are still determined to fight it.

The dispute over whether the college can build a 767,000-square-foot "lifelong learning" village for seniors has been the subject of Land Court hearings for more than a year, but the narrow question of whether the Dover Amendment applies was sent back to the Weston appeals board to decide in January.

In earlier proceedings, the board maintained it did not have the legal authority to rule on the Dover question, but the Land Court disagreed and ordered local zoning officials to make a decision by March 24.

Stop Regis Overdevelopment, a 200-member group opposed to the Regis East development claiming it is too big for the neighborhood and will cause terrible traffic congestion on Wellesley Street, said it was pleased by Wednesday's decision.

"We feel that this project is not an educational project," said member Arnold Zenker. "All the information presented has shown that the primary purpose of it is to generate revenue for Regis."

College officials would not comment on the appeals board decision.

But Regis spokeswoman Marjorie Arons-Barron said the college believes the court will see the academic mission of Regis East.

"Regis is confident that the Land Court, when it reviews the zoning board's decision and Regis's documentation, will note the integration of the east and west parts of the campus, the synergies to be achieved among its programs for learners of all ages, its curriculum and academic structure, and will affirm the educational purpose of Regis East," she said in a statement last week.

In a phone interview before the hearing, Regis College president Mary Jane England said the school remained firmly committed to building Regis East, which it describes as an inter-generational learning and living complex crucial to its educational mission.

It is intended to provide housing and continuing education programs for retirees, as well as training opportunities for the college's undergraduate and graduate nursing and healthcare management students.

College-linked housing for elders is becoming increasingly popular, with similar developments available at more than 60 locations, including Lasell College in Newton, as well as the campuses of Dartmouth College, Cornell University, Oberlin College and the University of Michigan.

But since it announced plans to build nearly four years ago, Regis has encountered bitter opposition from neighboring homeowners, who claim the proposal is grossly out of scale for the residential neighborhood, with proposed buildings as tall as 11 stories and inadequate traffic mediation plans.

The Stop Regis community group also said it was concerned the college could not afford to complete such a project.

"We never felt the project made much economic sense for [Regis], and we think it's an even more dangerous idea for them, and for the neighborhood in the current economy," Zenker said.

The school has struggled financially for the past several decades, but England said a financial turnaround plan is showing results.

Two years ago, the all-women Catholic school began admitting men, a move that increased enrollment from 650 undergraduate students to more than 800. The school expects to reach its goal of 1,200 undergraduates in the next few years, she said.

In 2007, Regis established the state's first doctorate of nursing practice program, which has so far enrolled 64 new graduate students. The college is also in the process of expanding its undergraduate fitness and sports management programs, England said.

While Regis East was scheduled to be an integral part of the healthcare curriculum's growth, providing hands-on training for nursing students, its delay does not mean the academic expansion will be put on hold, she said.

England said Regis had also had success shoring up its finances in the past several years. In 2001, the school operated with a $6.8 million deficit. In 2008, that number had been reduced to $1.1 million, she said.

The school's modest endowment has remained steady for the past several years at about $13 million, she said. Despite heavy losses sustained by many university investments, Regis's portfolio earned 3 percent last year. Since Sept. 1, when many schools posted double-digit investment losses, Regis's investments diminished by just 5 percent due to "very conservative" handling, said England.

The school has taken on $10 million in debt to build new athletic fields and tennis courts, and update the 50-year-old college library. But the loan is low-interest and state-guaranteed, with 30-year repayment terms, she said.

Regis reviews details of the Regis East proposal and feasibility every 18 months, but said the school's fundamental confidence in the project hasn't eroded.

"We are still very committed because we feel it is so important to our mission here," England said. "We'd only go through with it if it makes sense and we are very confident it does."

The Stop Regis group said it is prepared to continue its legal fight for the foreseeable future, but members would not specify how much of a war chest it has amassed for the next round of Land Court hearings.

Tax returns for 2005, 2006, and 2007, the last year the last publicly available filings from the Massachusetts Attorney General's Division of Public Charities, show the group has raised more than $250,000 over the past two years and spent most of it, presumably on the legal fight.

"I think we are adequately funded is about all I can say," Zenker said. "And when the issue returns to the front burner, we expect there will be a lot of support for us."

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.