City defends taking of Mattapan farm

Lawyers representing the owners of a distressed Mattapan farm property are fighting back against the city of Boston after one of its agencies seized control of the Norfolk Street landmark earlier this month. City Hall lawyers are defending the move— saying that they has an obligation to save the historic farmhouse and an adjacent barn from what one official has termed “demolition by neglect.”

Officials from the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) took control of the Fowler-Clark Farm at 487 Norfolk St. on August 10 citing concerns about its ongoing deterioration. The city agency brought in landscapers and heavy equipment to clear the property of debris and brush— and to secure the buildings— racking up a bill in excess of $50,000, according to a letter obtained by the Reporter this week.

In an Aug. 23 letter to the Ida Gertude Epstein Trust’s attorney, the city’s Assistant Corporation Counsel Alix M. O’Connell cites the city’s “obligation to preserve historic landmarks” and the owners’ “inability to maintain the property in a safe and secure condition” as the chief reasons behind the city’s actions. She also told the trust’s lawyer— Stephen A. Greenbaum— that the city has spent roughly $56,000 to clean up “a decade’s worth of debris and overgrowth” and secure the properties— a cost that “must be paid” for the city to consider releasing the property back to the family trust.

“The City believes that it [was] against the public’s interest to allow the property to continue in its blighted state,” O’Connell wrote. “The historic significance of these structures merit your consideration and the City has tried for years to offer support or options that allow for the preservation of this property. Unfortunately, your client has ignored the City’s overtures and instead continued in attempts to demolish these historic structures.”

The farmhouse and adjacent barn —situated on six lots across 30,000 square feet near the corner of Hosmer Street —are considered significant because they represent one of the last remaining links to the neighborhood’s pre-Civil War agrarian past. The site was designated as a historic landmark by a city commission in 2006.

Attorney Greenbaum, however, says that the city that has overstepped its bounds. His client— the Epstein trust— has asked him to review “various legal options” to get the property back from city control.
“It’s absolutely shocking to me in this age that any municipal body could make a determination that they can come on private property and seize it,” Greenbaum said. “I have never seen the city of Boston take this kind of action on this basis ever.”

The city’s lawyers are also taking a hard line on the Epstein trust’s “significant arrears on its tax bill”— arguing that the trust has “failed to pay sufficient property” tax on the farm since 2009. The letter also notes that the property has become “an overgrown dumping ground infested with rodents” that “represented serious sanitary and building code violations.”

But Greenbaum insists that the trust has paid for clean-ups of the property— and had contracted to pay for another $2,500 landscaping job at the site in the days before the city’s teams swept in this month. The owners, Greenbaum says, had no notice from city officials about the Aug. 10 action and are mystified with the $56,000 bill for the clean-up. He also claims that the trust has made payment on its outstanding bills to the city— amounting to some $15,000 between taxes, utility liens and an pre-existing Project Pride bill. The city, he claims, has “no basis in law” to “exert any form of ownership or control over” the farm.

Greenbaum says that the Epstein family trust had hoped to demolish the barn— which he says is in imminent danger of collapse— to make the property more palatable for sale to a new owner. The family trust wants to sell the property and use the proceeds to pay two beneficiaries of the trust— grandchildren of the late Ida Gertrude Epstein.

“It’s the owner’s determination- and we agree— that in order for it to be at all interesting to a developer, the barn would have to come down,” says Greenbaum. “The best use for that part of property would be the construction of residential housing and we have discussed moving and restoring the farmhouse itself.”