Cambridge Sues Harvard Over Statute

Questions Constitutionality of Zoning Law

Harvard has two weeks to file a response to charges it unconstitutionally influenced city policy by objecting under state zoning law to proposed restrictions on development in the Square.

Cambridge's suit alleges that the state law, which allows large property holders to demand a three-quarters vote of the city council before any zoning changes can be implemented, is unconstitutional because it gives the University unequal representation in city decision-making.

"The right of sovereignty has usually been considered sacrosanct, and to belong to people, not corporations," Douglas Randall, the attorney handling the suit for the city, said yesterday.

"That matter is in litigation, and we never comment on anything in litigation," Lewis Armistead, community relations assistant in the Office of Government and Community Affairs, said yesterday.

Michael F. Brewer, director for governmental relations in the Office of Government and Community Affairs, who is out of the state, said two months ago that the clause allowing the University to demand an extra vote, although rarely exercised, is essential to the University's interests as a large property-holder.

Harvard officials used the rule, which in Cambridge means seven of the nine city councilors, or three-fourths, must favor a zoning change, in a successful attempt to block the Harvard Square overlay, a height limitation on building in the Square.

Supporters of the overlay could muster only six votes and the motion was defeated, but the council later declared the ordinance passed and went to court to defend that action.

Although Randall called the constitutional issue the "center of the suit," he said it may be decided on less glamorous grounds.

Procedural questions, including the meaning of a "present" vote in city council discussions, and a new zoning statute which sets up a three-month period for complaints might allow the case to be decided without discussion of the constitutional issues, Randall said.

The only case law precedent on the books in Massachusetts is Trumper vs. Quincy, Randall said. The Supreme Judicial Court in that case upheld neighborhood property-owners who had demanded a three-fourths vote. "The standing of the owners was not a question there however; we are arguing that since Harvard is not an individual it is a different question," Randall said.

The state's attorney general's office will enter the case to defend the state statute only if the constitutional issues are broached, a spokesman said.