The Building You Just Bought Got Knocked Down?  Too Bad

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A property buyer whose commercial building was demolished by the city of Chelsea shortly after he acquired it has no remedy in state law, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled.

Rocco Vigorito bought an abandoned gas station from the estate of its previous owner for $100,000 in August 2016, about two months after he entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement and about 11 months after city officials had ordered the estate either to make the building safe or knock it down.

Two weeks after the purchase, the city served the new owner with a copy of the order to demolish that the city had first issued in September 2015. Vigorito asked a judge for a restraining order and an injunction to prevent the demolition, but the judge denied the request, in part because it was filed too late. The city demolished the building the next day and put a lien on the property of $168,134.47 to recover the cost.

A state statute gives a property owner just three days to file a civil lawsuit to stop demolition once municipal officials have served a demolition order on the owner. Selling a building under a demolition order doesn’t re-start the clock for the new owner, the Appeals Court ruled.

“Nothing in the controlling statutory framework requires the city to re-serve subsequent property owners with an order of demolition,” the Appeals Court said in the decision.

City officials say Vigorito knew the building was under a demolition order when he bought it even though he wasn’t formally notified about it until afterward. But Vigorito’s lawyer said Vigorito denies that, and he argued that it doesn’t make sense.

“Indeed, the very fact that Vigorito purchased the Property for $100,000 only to immediately inherit a lien for $168,134.47 in demolition costs strongly suggests that he was not provided adequate notice,” Vigorito’s lawyer argued in court papers.

After the building was demolished Vigorito sought to build a house on the lot, but city officials denied two applications from him. Vigorito’s lawyer later argued to the Appeals Court that city officials refused to consider seriously Vigorito’s plans for the property because they want to put a public park on the property.

The lawyer framed the case in terms of property rights and the power of government.

“This case concerns important statutory and constitutional questions vis-à-vis an individual’s private property rights versus the power of local governments to order the demolition of a building without paying just compensation to its owner,” Vigorito’s lawyer wrote in court papers.

The two sides disagree on the condition of the building. Vigorito said an engineer he hired found the concrete building was structurally sound, but a lawyer for city officials in court papers called the building “dilapidated” and that it “was structurally unsafe and had been frequented by intravenous drug users.”

The Appeals Court justices found that Vigorito’s request more than two and a half years ago for an injunction against the city’s plan to demolish was rendered moot once the building was demolished on August 25, 2016.

Lawyers for both sides could not be reached for comment earlier this week.

Vigorito has the option of appealing the ruling to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The case is called Vigorito vs. City of Chelsea. It was decided Friday, May 10.