Greenfield sued over property taking in 2019

The property at 87 Stone Ridge Lane in Greenfield, as seen from the trail system at Rocky Mountain Park. Former owner Stephen Woodbridge has filed a lawsuit against the city seeking compensation for money he believes he was owed following the sale of his home and land.

The property at 87 Stone Ridge Lane in Greenfield, as seen from the trail system at Rocky Mountain Park. Former owner Stephen Woodbridge has filed a lawsuit against the city seeking compensation for money he believes he was owed following the sale of his home and land. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2023 10:34 AM

GREENFIELD — The former owner of property taken by the city for back taxes in 2019 and sold at auction two years later has filed a lawsuit against the city seeking compensation for money he believes he was owed following the sale of his home and land on Stone Ridge Lane.

Northampton attorney Michael Aleo of Lesser, Newman, Aleo & Nasser LLP, who is representing Stephen Woodbridge as the plaintiff, alleges the city violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment “by taking two parcels of property he owned to recover unpaid taxes, but without compensating him for the excess value of the property over and above the monies he owed to the city.”

Though a 13-acre parcel of the property at 87 Stone Ridge Lane was retained by the city, a second 6-acre parcel that included Woodbridge’s residence — assessed for $258,400 — sold for $270,000, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield on Wednesday afternoon. The property was taken for unpaid taxes from fiscal year 2016 in the amount of $4,791.74, according to the Franklin County Registry of Deeds.

According to the complaint, the 13-acre parcel of land retained by the city, valued at $50,200, was taken for $970.11 in unpaid taxes, interests and other costs. The complaint states Woodbridge is also seeking “the difference between the monies [he] owed to the city and the fair market value of the parcel.”

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner previously said the total amount incurred by the city as a result of the tax title-taking process, which includes taxes owed, amounted to nearly $60,000. According to the complaint, the city calculated its costs in taking the two properties, including past due taxes and interest, to be $54,098.23.

Wedegartner declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday morning before consulting with the city’s attorneys, adding that “there is no mechanism in state law at the moment for [the city] to ‘give back’ money to former property owners on these matters.”

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The lawsuit comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that ruled local government can only retain tax debts owed, and no more, when seizing and selling private property, putting an end to what some describe as “home equity theft.” Before this ruling, Massachusetts, along with 11 other states, allowed local governments to foreclose on private property when taxes were overdue and keep all the proceeds, even if the taxes owed were a fraction of that amount.

“It’s not like they were doing anything deliberately in violation of that law,” said Aleo. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a violation.”

Originally, the 6-acre parcel that sold at auction in October 2021 was expected to be sold with the 13-acre parcel adjacent to it, which abuts Rocky Mountain Park and contains a network of trails that previous owners have left open to the public. Concerns about the previously planned auction of the land, however, were raised by the Conservation Commission in a letter to the mayor that was drafted during a meeting in September 2021.

Wedegartner ultimately agreed to delay the auction, while the Conservation Commission met several times to consider options for conserving the land and ensuring it remains available for recreational use. Commissioners discussed the potential of retaining one of the parcels on Stone Ridge Lane, so at the very least, the 13 acres could be retained by the city.

Following one of those meetings in October 2021, Wedegartner announced that the city would retain, rather than send to auction, the 13-acre parcel. Only the 6-acre parcel with the house would go to auction.

Aleo said prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, attorneys across the country were already representing homeowners looking to get back excess value after the sale. The case the Supreme Court ruled on involved a 94-year-old Minnesota woman who owed $15,000 in back taxes when the county government foreclosed on her condominium. The court ruled that the $25,000 extra that the county collected when the condo was sold violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

“The [Tyler v. Hennepin County (Minnesota) ruling] … certainly sent out a flashing signal to people in Mr. Woodbridge’s circumstance who, for whatever reason, lost their property due to a taking, whereas prior to Hennepin, you wouldn’t necessarily know as a property owner — or for that matter as an attorney — whether that was a legal right,” Aleo said.

Municipalities are “scrambling” to try to figure out what is required of them following the Supreme Court decision, according to Aleo. In Greenfield, the Appointments and Ordinances Committee, a subcommittee of City Council, planned to consider two ordinances Wednesday evening related to the tax title-taking process, one of which would require the city to make “reasonable efforts” to find property owners to offer compensation for any excess equity taken after the sale of their property.

“I would anticipate there are many [complaints to come],” Aleo said. “Any homeowner who had their property taken and is fairly confident that the amount they are owed is less than the value of the property after the taking, they would be wise to consider an action.”

An earlier version of this story had misstated the intention of an ordinance discussed by City Council members this week. The ordinance seeks to require that the city make reasonable efforts to find all property owners whose property has been sold by the city and to offer compensation for any excess equity taken after the sale. 

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitt er: @MaryEByrne.