Somerville Landowner Sues City, Says Officials Trying to Drive Down Property Values Ahead of Eminent Domain Taking

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SOMERVILLE — A landowner is claiming in federal court that Somerville officials pushing the city’s Union Square redevelopment plan illegally ordered the installation of curbs in front of several Webster Avenue garages, part of an effort to drive down property values in anticipation of an eminent domain land grab.

“I’m in a battle with the city,” property owner George Hara told New Boston Post during a recent interview. “This is an exercise to diminish the value of the property. I’ve had meetings with several people at City Hall, all polite, all said they’d get back to me, but nobody is calling me back.”

Messages left Monday and Tuesday by New Boston Post with the city’s communications liaison, Denise Taylor, likewise have yet to be returned.

(UPDATE Nov 1. 11:50 a.m. Somerville city officials, citing the pending litigation, are declining to comment, per Taylor) 

The Hara family’s lawsuit, filed by Hara’s sister, Aliki Pishev, accuses city officials of bypassing Somerville’s charter by installing a series of curbs in front of the property without first putting the matter before the Board of Aldermen. Hara claims he was never notified ahead of time that the curb-cuts, which have existed since the 1920s, would be replaced with curbs — a debilitating change for a property that is home to numerous bays and garages.

A visit to 47 Webster Avenue culminated in witnessing first-hand the difficulty of drivers attempting to access two of Hara’s tenants, JN Philips Auto Glass and another auto repair shop. Hara, whose father bought the property in 1970, said the new curbs were abruptly installed on September 19.

(Pictured — the curb-cuts at 47 Webster Avenue in Somerville as they appeared prior to the city’s actions)

He claims the city installed them not only to drive down the value of the property, but also as retribution for a lawsuit his family filed in Middlesex Superior Court in response to the city’s plans to redevelop Union Square by means of eminent domain.

“At no time did Hara receive a notice of any public hearing nor was there any public hearing held by the city aldermen or otherwise concerning the installation of the curb stops,” the lawsuit notes. “Hara has been deprived of this valuable property right without the benefit of a pre-deprivation notice or hearing in violation of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process.

Recently installed curbs at 47 Webster Avenue in Somerville. (Evan Lips)

“The curb stops were installed in order to discourage the lease and productive use of the property in order to force Hara to sell it to the master developer under duress or otherwise to depress the value of the property should it be taken by eminent domain.”

Hara’s family is seeking a preliminary injunction from the court that would prompt the city to remove the recently installed curb stop barriers and “enter an order permanently enjoining Somerville from imposing regulatory burdens and barriers” on the property’s tenants.

Somerville’s redevelopment plans for Union Square are tied into a planned extension of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Green Line. Mayor Joseph Curtatone has previously insisted that property owners and the plan’s master developer “will either reach a mutually agreed-upon fair market sale price or work together to develop the property, which would negate the need for any future takings by eminent domain.”

The lawsuit claims, however, that the installation of curbs along 47 Webster Avenue is designed to drive down the property’s market value.

The redevelopment plan, according to city documents, was introduced in 2012 and later approved by the Board of Aldermen. The city has been authorized under state eminent domain laws to take up to 279 private properties, according to a lawsuit filed jointly by several property owners. 

The city has disputed the total number of properties.

Last spring the Somerville Redevelopment Authority set in motion plans to acquire the properties, according to the Somerville Journal. 

According to the joint complaint filed in 2015 by Hara’s sister and 10 other residents, the seizure of only two of the alleged 279 properties would be necessary to complete the Green Line extension.

“They opened up a faucet and they don’t care what comes out,” Hara said about the city’s recent actions.

The original lawsuit, one of several eminent domain-related complaints filed against Somerville, is still pending in Middlesex Superior Court, with a hearing slated for Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. in Woburn.

Read the lawsuit:

2017-10-23 Pishev v Somerville by Evan on Scribd

(This story was updated to correctly state Hara’s last name)