By Erica Noonan
Regis College was dealt another setback in its three-year effort to build a 365-unit on-campus retirement village last week, after Weston’s Zoning Board of Appeals ruled the proposed project did not qualify for protection under the Dover Amendment, a state law that allows religious and educational institutions to bypass local zoning regulations.
But the college remains committed to the project.
The dispute over whether the college can build a 767,000-square-foot retirement village, to be called Regis East, is currently being argued in Massachusetts Land Court, but the narrow question of Dover applicability was remanded back to the Appeals Board in January.
In earlier proceedings, the board maintained it not have the legal authority to rule on the Dover question, but the higher court disagreed and ordered local zoning officials to make a decision by the end of March.
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 remained committed to building Regis East.
‘‘Regis is confident that the Land Court, when it reviews the zoning board’s decision and Regis’ 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 on Thursday.
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.
‘‘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.’’
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 health care 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’s 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 hand-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.
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 publically available — filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Division of Public Charities show that 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 firstname.lastname@example.org