JP land deals become city campaign issue

September 11, 2009
By

John Ruch

The sale of two city-owned lots in Jamaica Plain to owners who bought the land at dirt-cheap rates, then got around supposed deed restrictions to realize potentially huge profits through redevelopments, became a major issue in the mayoral race last week.

The Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), the city agency that disposed of the lots on Meehan and Dalrymple streets through the “Yard Sale” program, has blamed a “well-intentioned mistake” and “miscommunication among City departments” for the deals gone wrong.

“This shows that in [incumbent Mayor] Tom Menino’s Boston there are no rules,” said a written statement from mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea, who held a press conference in JP this week to raise the issue. “Deed restrictions mean nothing, because they can be undone with a wave of the pen. Boston is run like a banana republic.”

DND spokesperson Lucy Warsh said that DND Director Evelyn Friedman, who started the job last year, was told by Menino to “work to improve communication and efficiency among departments. Our land disposition policies and procedures are among the areas she is actively reviewing.”

Menino campaign spokesperson Nick Martin said the land sales are a city issue, not a political one, and referred questions to the city’s press office. Mayor’s Office spokesperson Christopher Loh declined comment, noting it is illegal for City Hall employees to comment on campaign issues.

The Yard Sale program is intended to sell small, surplus lots to abutting residents at prices far below their market value, both to save city maintenance costs and to put the parcels on the tax rolls. The lots are typically deed-restricted to remain open space, or to contain only small structures or an addition to a house.

But in at least two JP cases, property owners were able to get around the deed restriction.

The Gazette first revealed one of the land deals at 14 Meehan St. In 2000, DND sold a small lot there to the abutting homeowner. The entire property was later purchased by local developer Peter Bourassa, who last year proposed a condo development on the site.

The formerly city-owned parcel had a deed restriction requiring it to remain open space. But last year, DND amended that deed restriction to allow the condo project.

When local controversy erupted over the condo plans, Warsh called the lifting of the deed restriction a “well-intentioned mistake” and an “oversight,” and said DND would explore legal ways to reverse the decision. It turns out the decision was not reversible, and it remains unclear how the “mistake” happened. The condo development, which is now well under way, remains controversial.

The other parcel, at 26 Dalrymple St., was sold to an abutter in 1996 with a no-build deed restriction. That owner sold the entire property to another owner, who built a three-unit condo building on the site, including on the deed-restricted land. It appears that DND did not notify other city agencies, such as the Inspectional Service Department, of the deed restriction until after the development was approved.

That was a case of “miscommunication among City departments,” Warsh told the Gazette this week. “It is my understanding that building permits were granted to the second buyer without thorough review of the deed.”

McCrea does not oppose development of such lots. In fact, he has called for the city to list and sell most of its parcels at market rates for redevelopment, in part to lower housing costs by increasing supply. “We need to maximize the money for our assets, construct on buildable lots, and get rid of our pay to play system,” he said in his statement.

McCrea first raised the land-sale issue in a televised debate on Sept. 2, where he accused Menino of selling a parcel valued at $100,000 to a Boston Redevelopment Authority official for $5,000 after receiving a campaign donation from him. While McCrea did not reference the Yard Sale program in the debate, he later told the Gazette he has been familiar with it for years. Menino replied in the debate that McCrea’s implication of wrong-doing is “nonsense, and you know that.”

The Yard Sale program is currently offering a parcel on Montebello Road in JP for sale, according to the DND web site.

Corrected version: This version clarifies McCrea’s knowledge of the Yard Sale program.