Fighting City Hall
This is the story of how a mother and son were prevented from selling some land that they own because of a spineless building inspector. This occurred in Pittsfield, MA. in 2004. Note: I will be adding additional info in the near future. Any links shown will not work at this time.
In the summer of 2003 I hired a real estate attorney to see if a vacant lot owned by my mother and me could be sold as a building lot. In a previous year there was a zoning change that had made the lot non-conforming. Massachusetts has what is called the common law doctrine of lot merger and it also had to be determined if this applied, since the vacant lot on Oliver Ave. shares part of a common boundary with the land my mother's house is on. The vacant lot and my mother's house are on two different streets that are parallel to one another. My attorney contacted the Pittsfield City Planner (since retired) who researched the ownership of the Oliver property all the way back to 1909, the year it was created. The planner concluded that the merger doctrine did not apply, the lot was grandfathered and was buildable. Next, Pittsfield's Building Inspector,William Thornton,was notified of the planner's findings. Mr. Thornton agreed that it was a buildable lot. The tax assessment was then changed. The tax evaluation went from approx. $3,000 to $18,000. We contracted with a realtor and put the land up for sale. We got a buyer in early 2004. My lawyer called me and said he could not close the deal because Thornton would not issue a building permit. The sale had to be cancelled since the buyer could not build a house on the land. Why had Thornton changed his mind? Several weeks after the sale had been cancelled,I found out that an abutter to the Oliver St. lot, a Mr. Thomas Hamilton, who didn't want a house built next him, had complained to Thornton about the granting of a building permit. At this juncture, Thornton asked Pittsfield's Assisstant City Solicitor, Kathleen Degnan, for her legal opinion. Her first legal opinion was two pages and in it she stated the zoning change had taken place in 2001. Read Degnan's second opinion . She now says the zoning change took place in 1970,which is correct. Her arguments in the two opinions are slightly different,tho she does conclude in both that the lot is not buildable. None of the cases she cites address whether an unimproved lot can be merged with an improved lot. Was it her sole intent to deny us a building permit? Did the abutter complain directly to Degnan? Was there a conspiracy between Degnan and Thornton? Why didn't Thornton ask for a legal opinion in 2003 if he was concerned? I cannot say for sure. What I can say for sure is that the abutter,who apparently has some political clout,did complain directly to Thornton.
Recently the City of Pittsfield, MA did a property revaluation for all properties within the city. This is done at least once every three years. The assessment on our lot was increased to $37,000. We are now paying taxes on land that is assessed as a building lot but they won't let us sell it as such. Update: I took the City of Pittsfield to the MA Land Court. The court gave me a favorable ruling and I sold the property in 2010. The case can be viewed on www.masscases.com The case# is: MISC 09-398766. I also filed a lawsuit in Federal court in an attempt to collect monetary damages. This lawsuit was not successful . The case# is: 10-30200 and you will need to be enrolled in the PACER system to view the complete file.
Degnan's legal opinions are just that-opinions.They are not legally binding. The building inspector would not stand behind his original decision and chose instead to pass the buck to Degnan. The City of Pittsfield has lost $1,000s in potential property taxes. Please send any questions, advice or comments to: email@example.com
In late 2004 I called the Pittsfield Tax Assessor and asked that the lot be reassessed,since Thornton would not issue a building permit. They told me it was not their concern and that I should take the matter up with Thornton. In March of 2005 I again called the assessor's office and told them that I felt they were committing fraud against us by taxing the property as a building lot and yet we couldn't sell it as such. I got a letter about a week later that stated for fiscal 2006 the valuation would be reduced to $3,700. I was also informed that I could not recover any property tax overcharge from 2003,2004 or 2005.
I received an e-mail from William Thornton in 2004 in which he states that,"Having the City Solicitor review and comment on the status of a property is done on a regular basis by this department." If what he said is true,there should be many legal opinions available. I decided to submit a Freedom of Information Request to the City Solicitor to see if the two opinions written about our lots were available. They were and they were sent to me. I then sent in another FOIR and asked for one(preferrably two)legal opinions in which the grandfather provision of the MA zoning law was analyzed for a property located in Pittsfield. I said that the opinion(s) could be from any year. They could not produce even one. Hmmmm......
To read the case of another land owner in MA. log onto: www.01521.com