This is Important

Battelle Memorial Institute's short announcement last week that it plans to move its Duxbury operation of 80 years to a state-of-the art facility in Norwell is important news. Battelle's campus at 397 Washington Street is prime real estate. The oncoming move demands the attention of citizens and town officials while the seller and any buyer may be moved to act in what might be called a feasible statesmanlike manner.

The Duxbury research facility was founded in 1933 as Clapp Laboratories by Harvard biologist Dr. William F. Clapp. Dr. Clapp left Harvard for Duxbury to study the biology of the Teredo (the ship worm) and the Limnoria (the gribble) -- wood-borers that had devastated the shipping industry in the 1920s. On his death in 1951, Dr. Clapp was succeeded by A.P. (Pete) Richards. Richards and his wife Beatrice, a biologist herself, raised their two sons in Duxbury. (We recently had a delightful conversation with Bea Richards, who is now in her 90's.)

On Pete Richards' early death in 1963, Beatrice succeeded him has director. In 1965, she sold to Battelle, whose work in Duxbury is world-famous. In recent years it has especially focused on the long-term effects on the environment of petroleum and its byproducts.

Battelle's 65 employees have been a muted but vital presence in Duxbury, and a measurable boost to businesses in Snug Harbor. Employees will keep their jobs but lose what Duxbury has been to them -- for example, lunches near Battelle's dock, with a panoramic view of Powder Point, Duxbury Beach, Clark's Island and Manomet.

It is unlikely Battelle would undertake a move of this magnitude if it had not already secured a firm offer to buy. That is not denied -- "not denied" in a confirmatory way. Legally, Battelle has been treated as a church or school. Unlike other non-profits, it is not subject to site-plan reviews or zoning variances. The town can regulate parking, traffic, fire safety and such. Otherwise, Battelle has been able to do what it wanted. For 80 years its and Clapp Laboratories' steps were soft.

A church or another school would have the same privileges, but for-profits and other non-profits would not. Local zoning would resume: The Battelle campus would revert to residential use.

The property contains a couple of large one-time summer houses and a couple of typical Duxbury Greek-revival farmhouses (one of them much enlarged). The most important building is the 1800 Nathaniel Winsor Sr. house, facing Washington Street. Should the new owner be a real-estate developer, we can imagine demolitions of buildings built as offices or laboratories -- replaced by $3-million mansions permanently pregnant with their pretentious garages. Would that be the best thing that could happen to such a magnificent site?

Such speculation is of course subject to being mooted when an actual buyer appears. The buyer will have rights; town government's powers are, thankfully, not dictatorial. We speculate because now is the best possible time to do so, while the future of the Battelle campus is still an opportunity for the town, and not -- like the two lawsuits the town stumbled into -- a truck that just bumped us, and another that may be about to crush us.

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