Mayor seeks to take Crystal Lake site by eminent domain: Newton MA Tab, 2/26/07

By Christopher Loh

After nearly six months of failed negotiations to purchase a Crystal Lake-front property, Newton [MA] Mayor David Cohen wants to take over 20 Rogers St. from owner Pat Hannon by eminent domain.

“I have not come to this conclusion without a great deal of careful consideration,” said Cohen. “A taking by eminent domain is a very serious matter and it is not being done lightly. However, it is my feeling that this is a virtually once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the City of Newton.”

Eminent domain is the inherent power of the government to seize a citizen’s private property for a public reason. In the case of Hannon’s property, the city intends to use the property to extend the public beach at Crystal Lake.

Cohen informed the Board of Aldermen of his intentions in a letter dated Feb. 23.

The mayor said he is asking the Community Preservation Committee for $2.3 million of Community Preservation Act funding which he believes represents fair market value.

Eminent domain cannot be implemented until the money has been appropriated.

If the money is approved by the CPC, the issue moves before the full Board of Aldermen, which has final approval of the action.

Hannon doesn’t object to the idea, but he wants to be paid a higher figure than what is currently being requested by the Mayor.

“This guy’s unbelievable,” said Hannon who added that while he is not against eminent domain, he would prefer to have a “friendly taking” in which he receives more than the $2.3 million.

“It’s not the end of the world but what it is, is an unfair tactic to get the property for less than it’s worth,” said Hannon.

Hannon said he is willing to consider any offers between $3 million and $3.9 million.

The property is also laden with $12 million worth of liens - $6 million of those are back taxes Hannon owes to both the state and federal governments while the other half is to private organizations.

Cohen said that after speaking with government officials he is “100-percent confident” that the city would be released of those liens and not found responsible.

The mayor’s spokesperson Jeremy Solomon said the City will be taking the property by eminent domain based on four arguments.

First, Solomon said, the property is “unique” and is specifically “one that abuts a city facility on Crystal Lake.”

Solomon was referring to the city’s bathhouse used by swimmers.

The second argument was that Hannon has “shown a willingness to sell,” said Solomon. “We’re not trying to seize a property from a homeowner who wants to hang on to it.”

Third, the house located on the property is not habitable, according to Solomon. And fourth, taking the property would enable the city to “enhance and preserve the recreational facility already located there,” said Solomon.

“I have reached this conclusion after protracted conversations and six months of negotiation with the current owner to try to reach a mutually agreeable purchasing price,” said Cohen.

This is not the first battle Hannon has had with the city.

Hannon has argued with Garden City officials over his right to snowmobile on the lake; over whose responsibility it is to fix an old retaining wall; and his right to tear down the house sitting on the property after it was twice damaged by fire.

In October Hannon asked the city for $4.5 million for the property. He was upset by Cohen’s counter offer of $2.3 million and pulled the property from the table.

Cohen has said all along that in order to use CPA funding for the purchase, he was legally bound to the $2.3 million figure that was the result of an appraisal the city had commissioned.

Eventually, with the help of Ward 6 Alderman Ken Parker, Hannon asked for $3.9 million but once again pulled the offer when the city sent him a letter saying it was preparing to come on to the lakefront property to fix the retaining wall.

“They’ve succeeded in taking away my emotional attachment to the property but I still want the money that it is worth,” said Hannon, who paid $3 million for the property that has been assessed at $2.7 million by the city.

While he has been looking into building 45 units of affordable housing on the site Hannon said he will wait a week to see what exactly happens.

“I don’t think [Cohen’s] bluffing, I think he is going to take it,” said Hannon but added that he was still not bothered by the news. “I was born at night but not last night and I’m just as good at mind games as he is. I’ve been married a long time and I have eight kids, I can take anything. None of this is a challenge for me.”

Adding to the drama of the saga around Hannon and his property is Cohen’s disclosure that 20 Rogers St. is encumbered by about $12 million in liens. According to Cohen, the city solicitor has determined that taking the land by eminent domain is the only way the city can get a clear title.

While Hannon downplayed the liens, saying he was confident the federal government would relieve him of them, Cohen said he has had conversations with officials on both the state and federal level and is “100-percent confident” the city will not be responsible for any of the liens if eminent domain is taken.

The mayor’s office provided a complete list of liens that have been taken out on the property since its purchase by Hannon in August 2002.

The liens include two federal tax liens of $2.7 million each within one week of each other in February 2003 and more recently an $871,000 lien from ACSTAR Insurance Company in September 2005 and a $2.4 million lien applied by the Middlesex Superior Court this August.

This isn’t the first time it has been reported that Hannon has had tax problems.

In November the IRS announced the seizures of seven different properties in Acton, Maine all owned by Hannon and his wife Elizabeth.

Hannon later said the seizures never happened and that the IRS made a mistake adding that the liens are an extension of what took place in November.

Newton MA Tab: http://www.townonline.com/newton