WESTERLY — The Town Council is continuing to review its options for 11 lots on Terrapat Drive that the town acquired in a tax sale in 2005. Many of the lots are submerged by wetlands.
Council members were given a briefing on the status of the land on Monday by Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr. He explained that under the current circumstances the town could sell the lots only for the back taxes owed on the land, plus interest and expenses. If the council decides it should seek fair market value, it would first have to clear the title to the lots by foreclosing the rights to redemption in Superior Court before it could offer the land for sale on the open market, Conley said.
David Franzese, a resident who owns adjacent land, has been looking to purchase the 11 lots for about 10 years. His offer was $19,962 — the amount of property taxes owed when the town took the rights to the land plus the amount that the lots would have generated in taxes since that time. Janne Reisch, Franzese's lawyer, has said her client could probably only build two or three houses on the land because of the wetlands. She has also said he would have to acquire an additional privately owned lot in order to have access to all of the lots he hopes to obtain from the town.
Councilor Brian McCuin, a builder and developer, recommended that Conley go to court to foreclose the rights to redemption and then put the land up for sale on the open market. McCuin said that lots that can support new building sell for $40,000 to $50,000 in Westerly. "It's easy to clear the title. Boom. It's done all the time ... it's the taxpayers' money. I think our responsibility is to get the most we can for it," he said.
Councilor Sharon Ahern offered a similar perspective. "If you look at two or three buildable lots they're worth more than $10,000 each. I wouldn't think clearing the title would cost much," she said.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno recommended a cautious approach. "I agree about there needing to be a value but I want to weigh out the value to us and what we're able to get if there are only two buildable lots," she said.
Reisch said Wednesday that Franzese has already spent more than $1,000 on surveys and legal work since he started talking to town officials about the land.
"If the town now wants to engage in dealing real estate for profit, the council should have a policy to perfect title on all lots or buildings to which the town holds the tax titles. Singling out the lots which Mr. Franzese has been trying to acquire the tax title for seems utterly unfair unless, of course, the town would reimburse Mr. Franzese for everything the town asked him to do, from title searches to surveys, while he was in limbo for the past 10 years," Reisch said.
Reisch also noted that the town has transferred tax titles acquired in tax sales eight times since 1990, including once previously to Franzese.