Legal Terrain

Environmental Justice Put to the Test at Boston’s Franklin Park

February 29, 2024


Last week, an interesting lawsuit was filed in Boston with a distinctly and perhaps ironic environmental justice flavor. A non-profit, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, along with fifteen Boston residents, brought suit to enjoin the City of Boston and other parties from upgrading and expanding Franklin Park’s George White Stadium and surrounding areas in the Park for purposes of housing a major league women’s soccer franchise. According to the Complaint, the development would result in over 10,000 soccer fans coming to Franklin Park for 20 Saturdays from April to November each year for home games (along with additional team practices on Fridays). The Complaint alleges that the project would “fundamentally alter the nature and feel of a significant portion of Franklin Park during the majority of fair-weather weekends each year.”

The legal causes of action sound in alleged breaches of the terms of the George White Fund Trust, which holds the Park in public trust for the benefit of the residents of Boston, and violations of Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution (general protection of public lands) and public land preservation statutes.  But make no mistake: this is an environmental justice case. The Complaint invokes mainstream environmental justice principles: “If allowed to continue apace, without intervention by the Court, the unlawful Project will cause irreparable harm to Franklin Park, to the White Fund Trust, and its beneficiaries, the people of Boston, including the residents of the Environmental Justice Communities in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and Jamaica Plain surrounding Franklin Park.”  Later in the Complaint, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants bypassed the processes that “fully and properly examine the environmental impacts of the Project.”

The Complaint also alleges illegal conversion of public lands to private use, excluding members of the public from the Project Site on game and practice days. Again noting the public impact, the Complaint argues that these proposed private soccer activities would be taking priority over long-established competing public uses such as multi-sport Boston Public School athletics, graduations, and sports camps.

The defendants’ formal response has yet to be filed. In Mayor Wu’s public statements regarding the suit, she has stressed the Project’s benefits to the community, noting that the current stadium is dilapidated after years of neglect, and the Boston Public Schools and the surrounding community will command 90 percent of the renovated stadium’s usage. Of course, soccer enthusiasts and advocates for women’s professional sports have welcomed the promise of a women’s professional soccer franchise in Boston.

The White Stadium controversy presents an interesting window into the conflicts that can arise on even the most well-meaning projects that still create additional traffic, air and noise pollution, and other disruptions to a community already burdened by these issues. The case has already generated substantial heat and strong opinions throughout the City. Here’s hoping this dispute is resolved relatively quickly through a negotiated compromise among all the stakeholders and not through a drawn-out legal resolution.  If we can welcome professional women’s soccer to Boston in a way that is respectful and not unduly disruptive to the City’s neighborhoods, the result is a “win-win” for all. We’ll be watching closely.

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