Thursday, July 18, 2024

Attorney Olympia Bowker talks with John Pitkin, a plaintiff in a seven-resident lawsuit against the city over an Inman Square redesign, on Wednesday at Boston’s Land Court. (Photo: Kim Courtney)

The first question to be decided in seven residents’ lawsuit against the city over an Inman Square redesign: Whether the Land Court has jurisdiction to hear the case.

The residents said in a lawsuit filed in May that the city circumvented a public process required by zoning law when it implemented a redesign and reconstruction of Vellucci Plaza in Inman Square, a project that faced a protest attended by around 40 people January for the removal of trees without a public process. The project, initially to cost $3 million, rose in June to $7.9 million.

Plaintiffs John Pitkin and Sara Mae Berman attended a Land Court hearing Wednesday before recently appointed Judge Diane Rubin with attorneys Olympia Bowker and Nathaniel Stevens from the law firm McGregor & Legere in Boston, as well as four supporters. Attorney Megan Bayer appeared for Cambridge’s Law Department.

The city has begun construction to restructure the square’s traffic pattern, and public open space around it. Although Bayer acknowledged that the city would have to comply with the zoning ordinance if it were to construct, for example, a building, she argued that a public way is not addressed directly in the ordinance and that state law gives the city the right to lay out and relocate a public way without being subject to it – thus the Land Court has no jurisdiction to hear the case. 

Bayer also acknowledged, however, that City Council approval is needed for the project to relocate Hampshire Street, which she said would occur after the project is complete.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Bowker argued that the zoning ordinance provides for mandated protection of open space, and that the construction required certain procedures to be followed, which the city circumvented. State law gives the Land Court jurisdiction over the issue because the city has made itself subject to the zoning ordinance, and no exemptions apply, she said. 

Rubin questioned whether the small size of the public space would affect whether the city has to follow the procedures in the ordinance, and what the harm would be to residents if the city were to complete construction and then seek, but fail to get, City Council approval due to lack of public support. Why couldn’t the city then just dig everything up and rebuild the park where it was? the judge asked. 

The size of the public space has no impact on the fact that the ordinance applies, Bowker said, and getting council approval after construction is complete is too late. A public process should have taken place before trees were cut down and construction began, she said.

The cost to the city of following procedures laid out in its own laws is minimal, Bowker said. The city is simply trying to avoid a layer of protection that it put in place itself.

Rubin took the matter under advisement for a decision at a later date.