PRA may sue council: Pawtucket RI Times, 1/13/07

By Douglas Hadden

In 2006, it was the School Committee suing the City Council for more education funding, then the council suing school officials over the proposed deal to purchase the downtown former Registry building.

Now welcome to 2007, and again when it comes to lawyers, don't leave home without yours, if you're a city official.

In the newest move, it appears the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency appears determined to snatch yet one more piece of city-on-city litigation - though this time from the jaws of a budding compromise on the controversial depot issue.

"I think that's right," Councilor Robert Carr, who is potentially being sued along with the rest of the council for an eminent domain vote on the depot property last month, said Friday of that characterization.

But "I'll be surprised if it ever gets to court," said Carr, himself an attorney. "I don't get it myself - even if it went to court, it's meritless. I think it's ludicrous. What would a court do? It would tell (the council) to take another vote. They can do that anyway."

PRA, in a Jan. 8 letter that began arriving in councilors' mailboxes Friday, issued notice to the City Council that it intends to take the council to court over eminent domain-related votes last month. The letter, from PRA attorney R. Kevin Horan, was addressed to Mary Bray, the new council president, and also singles out former Councilor Albert Vitali Jr.

The notice comes even as planning officials in Central Falls and Pawtucket, as well as depot developer SMPO Properties-Warwick RICS LLC and CVS, appear on the verge of striking a compromise that would save most of the depot complex while allowing a 12,000 square foot drug store to be built on the Broad Street site.

The legal action heads-up follows a unanimous vote by the PRA last month to pursue litigation on the issue.

The matter turns on the council's rejection of a PRA request for authority to seize several properties by eminent domain, including the depot property along Main Street, half of which sits in neighboring Central Falls.

At that council meeting, then-Councilor Albert Vitali Jr., whose mother had retained some financial interest in the property after it was sold to Memphis-developer Oscar "Ike" Seelbinder and his partners, voted against a parliamentary move by councilor proponents of eminent domain to table the issue, avoid defeat and perhaps fight another day when a new council took office in January.

But the tabling move failed on a tie vote. On the actual eminent domain vote, Vitali recused himself to avoid a conflict of interest but the measure still failed because it fell short of the five votes needed to enact a city ordinance, as the eminent domain action entailed.

Vitali said Friday he voted to table because PRA had, despite protests for months from councilors on both sides of the depot issue, lumped all potential properties for seizure together, in one vote. Vitali noted that early last year, PRA had refused to drop a Carson Street property from the list even after its Spanish-speaking owner, with translation help from a friend, told the council she had put $10,000 into repairs and was well along in fixing the building.

In December, "There were three other property owners (besides the depot) that deserved their time in front of the council and I didn't think it was fair to them," Vitali said. That night the council rejected the PRA's all-lumped-in eminent domain list.

"I don't know if he should have voted or not," Bray said Friday of Vitali, and questioned why the whole council might face legal action. "The vote was before us. So I don't know there was anyone on the council who had the right to say who could vote and who couldn't."

Bray said what was preferable in the depot matter was that all sides reach an acceptable compromise. "Ultimately, if we can all come to an agreeement that would be the best possible scenario for everyone," said Bray, who wants to see the depot saved because it is "such a vital part of Pawtucket."

As for what her next move might be, "I think we've been put on notice, we wait to hear what's next," Bray said. Noting that the city would have to defend council members in court for any official acts they took, she added, "All it is, is business for attorneys."

Councilor Donald Grebien, who was council president at the time of the vote and voted against eminent domain, said Friday evening he was aware of the letter but hadn't been home yet to check his mailbox.

But he also found the threatened litigation misguided. "The Redevelopment Agency is going to waste the taxpayers' money to sue the council. It makes no sense," he said.
"In my opinion," said Carr, who also voted against the property seizure authorization, "it's baseless. The courts don't have jurisdiction over ethics issues in the first place, and the state Ethics Commission process does not, by state statute, have the ability "to void a vote," he said.

The PRA's attorney, R. Kevin Horan, said the action would be in Superior Court if it went forward. He said unlike actions for monetary damages, such as when PRA late last year gave a lawsuit notice to the School Department for the lease it broke in the PRA-owned Visitors Center building when it moved out to occupy the former Registry building, there was no legal requirement "that I know of" to give the council advance notice before filing suit in Superior Court. "But I recommended they do it," he said.

On the depot front, where a 30-day demolition moratorium ends Monday, Cassidy said after meetings this week that planners for CVS are expected to bring back a revised site plan Tuesday (after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday).

Changes all sides appear to tentatively agree on is that Broad Street would be narrowed, and demolition would at most be limited to the former baggage area where a storefront church was housed for years, and some of what has been torn down would go back up.

The main building, which Warwick RICS was going to peal back 18 feet to provide parking called for in its lease with CVS, would remain untouched.

Seelbinder, who did not attend the meetings but had representatives there, said it was his understanding Cassidy agreed to the partial demolition but Cassidy said nothing has been finalized yet from the city's standpoint, which would require signoff from Mayor James E. Doyle.

"One must ask the real dumb question," Seelbinder observed, "if we're saving the train station to put a T stop there, what kind of sense does it make to make Broad Street smaller. But we're just trying to take care of our client."

Seelbinder noted SMPO got into an eminent domain tiff before - with the federal government, when his company was building the U.S. Army Southern Command headquarters in Miami. He said SMPO offered to settle for $7 million but the government refused, and after the matter was adjudicated in court a judge ultimately awarded SMPO $12.7 million for the land the government seized.

On another depot-related front, Seelbinder said issues are proceeding smoothly with Amtrak over its concerns of how the project could potentially affect its adjacent railroad tracks and service, and he expected that process could wrap up as soon as next week.

"We just want to get down the road building a new CVS because that area needs change dramatically, and that's what the people there want and need," he said.

Pawtucket RI Times: http://www.zwire.com