Estate goes to court to reclaim Fowler-Clark farm from city

A worker hired by the city of Boston cleared overgrowth on the Clark-Fowler farm property on Norfolk Street in August 2013. Photo by Bill Forry

The owner of a historic but run-down Mattapan property that was seized by city officials in August went to court this week seeking an injunction allowing them to reclaim the land. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Judith Fabricant heard from both sides in the case on Tuesday afternoon and is expected to make a ruling in coming days.

The city’s Department of Neighborhood Development seized control of the Fowler-Clark farm on Norfolk Street on Aug. 10, citing an overdue tax bill and other unpaid utility bills as the trigger. Officials also pointed to the distressed condition of the buildings and the unkempt nature of the grounds, which have been the subject of repeated code violations in recent years.

While both sides in the dispute acknowledge that the outstanding tax and water bills have since been paid, the city has refused to return control of the land to the trustee for the Epstein family, which has owned the farm for decades. The city is demanding that the trust pay back some $60,000 that the city spent on securing and cleaning up the site over the last two months.

Stephan A. Greenbaum, an attorney representing the Epstein trust, lambasted the city government in his argument before Judge Fabricant, accusing the Menino administration of attempting to steal the land and sell it to an unnamed, non-profit developer. “I cannot believe the way that the city has behaved,” said Greenbaum. “They aren’t interested in the $60,000. They are interested in stealing this property.”

Sean Nehill, a senior assistant corporation counsel who spoke for the city, told Fabricant that they city had no desire to hold onto the land, but insisted that the estate pay the bill for the clean-up. “The city does not want this property,” Nehill said. “They do want the property preserved. There is a real and genuine concern that demolition is just a formality.”

Nehill pointed to photos of the farm site taken on the day that city workers swept onto the property and began an aggressive landscaping operation. He said that it was in the “public interest” for the city to take action since the property had been allowed to decay and was the subject of many neighborhood complaints.

Greenbaum countered that the Epstein trust had remedied other code violations brought to its attention in the past. He claimed that in the weeks before the city seized the land, lawyers for the trust were in talks with city officials from the Inspectional Services Department about demolishing the barn that is adjacent to the main farmhouse. He asserted that the dispute over the demolition, not an old tax bill, was the real reason for the city’s action.

Greenbaum also accused the city of deliberately mailing tax bills to the Norfolk Street house, which is unoccupied, instead of sending them to his client, Arthur Brecher, who is the trustee of the Epstein trust.

“They didn’t want the trust to pay taxes. They wanted this to happen,” said Greenbaum – a claim that city lawyer Nehill dismissed out of hand.

Judge Fabricant pressed both sides on why they simply did not resolve the matter by settling the bill for the clean-up. Greenbaum argued that the estate did not have $60,000, but suggested that if the city would return control of the site to the estate, it could sell the land and pay off the bill with part of the proceeds. Greenbaum says the estate’s intention has been to raze the barn – which it considers unsalvageable – and sell the land to a developer who will agree to preserve the main house, a wood-frame structure that dates back to between 1786 and 1806.

Once situated on more than 11 acres, the property was sub-divided at the turn of the last century and now sits on about a half-acre of land. It is one of six properties in Dorchester and Mattapan that have been designated as landmarks by the Boston Landmarks Commission.