EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 10, 2013

Buyer beware: Some properties mayor wants to sell not worth buying, councilors say

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — The expression "buyer beware" is especially true when purchasing land from the city.\

At the very least, anyone interested in any of 19 city-owned properties that Mayor James Fiorentini has asked City Council to surplus would be wise to research and visually inspect the properties, some councilors said. Public land must be declared surplus — unusable or unwanted — by the council before the mayor can try to sell it at auction or by soliciting bids.

The parcels, none of which are buildable without approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals, have a combined assessed value of about $400,000.

A recent walking tour of some of the properties revealed several odd and unaccessible lots, including one at the bottom of a steep embankment with a creek running through it.

That parcel, in a residential neighborhood on Glen Meadow Road, looks attractive on paper. It's sandwiched between single-family homes and appears large enough for a home — on paper. In actuality, the land runs up to a cliff and contains a stream fed by a large city pipe running under a nearby road.

Other parcels up for surplus are slivers of land that aren't accessible by existing roads. Some show on city maps that they could eventually be reached by a "paper street" that doesn't exist.

At a recent meeting, some councilors recommended against selling the worst of the batch. Others said the council should let the mayor try to sell them all if he can.

"If they are unsellable, the mayor won't be able to sell them," City Councilor Michael Hart said. "But I think we should let him see if someone wants them, maybe an abutter who wants to increase the size of their property."

In the past, Fiorentini has used money from the sale of city property to repair and renovate schools and other city buildings, plug budget shortfalls and grow the city's cash reserves. The mayor said he plans to use most of the proceeds from this batch to boost the city's cash reserves.

A council committee reviewing the properties has recommended against surplussing five of the 19 parcels. City department heads have also recommended against selling these properties for a variety of reasons, including environmental concerns.

The council's Public Property and Natural Resources Committee also wants the city to hold onto several parcels because they might be worth more in the future. These include one lot on the banks of the Merrimack River near downtown and another on Hillside Avenue that could be combined with other nearby city-owned property to make a larger, more valuable parcel.

A lot between a used car dealership at 162 River St. and a mutli-unit residential building on the other side is the most valuable of those up for surplus, with an assessed value of $105,700. The property was most recently leased from the city by a man who owns the residential building next door, according to city records. Councilor Colin LePage said he believes the lot could be combined with either neighboring property to form a parcel large enough for future development. The city also might want to use it someday as a public dock for boats on the river, LePage said.

The council is expected to surplus 14 of the properties at Tuesday's meeting. The vote is expected to be conditioned on the city notifying direct neighbors of each property prior to the start of a formal sale process.

The most valuable of the properties set to be surplussed is a Tremont Street lot assessed at $64,500. This parcel once contained a house that was destroyed by fire, increasing the likelihood that the land could be built on with approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals. LePage said the Tremont Street property was a late addition to the surplus list because the city only recently found out it owned the land.

"We found out we owned it as a result of a dispute between neighbors over parking their cars on the property," LePage said.

The city is considering selling these 19 public properties (list included latest tax assessment)

Council favors sale of:

Lois Street: $16,700, $11,300, $11,300 (three parcels)

Ellen Street: $15,500

Clifford Avenue: $17,400

Washington Street: $12,900

Rochambault Street: $16,500

Eudora Street: $500

Freeman Street: $34,200

Hillcrest Street: $16,400

Montrose Avenue: $800

Observatory Avenue: $1,700

Whitney Avenue: $3,400

Tremont Street: $64,500

Council opposes sale of:

River Street: $105,700

Glen Meadow Road: $21,500

Laurier Street: $27,700

West Lowell Avenue: $9,200

Hillside Avenue: $16,100

NOTE: Numbered addresses not available