No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The City of Philadelphia threatens to sue local business owner for cleaning up a vacant lot

In South Philadelphia, there is a vacant lot owned by the city through the Redevelopment Authority (RDA). Until recently, the lot didn’t exactly look “redeveloped”:

This is how the Redevelopment Authority thinks this lot should look

Local lawyer and developer Ori Feibush owns a coffee shop adjacent to the lot. Given that the RDA apparently had no interest in maintaining the lot, Ori decided to take matters in his own hands.

Check it out:

This is not how the Redevelopment Authority thinks this lot should look

Ori spent more than $20,000 and removed more than 40 tons of debris to fix the lot.

So did the city give Ori a medal? Reimburse him for the work? At least send him a thank you note, or perhaps a fruit basket?

No.

They threatened to file a lawsuit against him. According to the City:

“Like any property owner, [the authority] does not permit unauthorized access to or alteration of its property. This is both on principle (no property owner knowingly allows trespassing) and to limit taxpayer liability.” The city is “”is actively reviewing its options at this time.”

And this is the nastygram Ori received:

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Williams-Jackson, Christi {snip}
Date: Mon, Aug 13, 2012 at 10:01 AM
Subject: 1138-42 South 20th Street
To: {snip}  Cc: “Thomas, David” {snip}

Mr. Feibush

An inspection of the PRA parcel located at 1138-42 South 20th Street indicates that landscape work has commenced without the approval of this agency.  As you were advised last week, by both myself and Mr. David Thomas, a license agreement must be granted prior to you or any entity entering a PRA owned property.  We further advised you to not  begin any work.  During an inspection of the parcel this morning it was observed that the j-barriers had been moved and the tilling of the soil begun.  This was done without the permission of the PRA.

You are requested to immediately stop all work and return the j-barriers to the original location.

Please feel free to contact me or Mr. Thomas should you have any questions.

Christi M. Williams-Jackson
Director of Property Management/Residential Services Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority

What’s worse? According to Ori, “They said we need to return it to the condition we found it in immediately.”

Oh, and even worser? Perhaps the irony. The city has cited Ori for the poor condition of the lot, even though he doesn’t own it:

In the past few years, [Ori]’s received three citations from the city fining him for not removing the snow from the sidewalk in front of this lot. Last August, he received a citation for the trash on the lot.  But he doesn’t own the lot. He never did. And now that he’s cleaned the lot, he’s been threatened with legal action.

Thank you, city officials, for spending my tax dollars to protect dilapidated lots and promote blight.

[Update] This has gone national. Our friend Amy Alkon is covering it at Advice Goddess.

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14 Responses to No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The City of Philadelphia threatens to sue local business owner for cleaning up a vacant lot

  1. Ancel De Lambert says:

    City, either he owns it or he doesn’t, make up your damn mind.

  2. Ancel De Lambert says:

    Little question. Some commenters on Alkon’s blog mentioned landgrabbing, and that this man may have been attempting it. I would like to ask an actual lawyer whether or not the old laws about land ownership and homesteading are still in effect; ie you must inhabit it for ten years and markedly improve the land. If so, would this business owner have a case on those grounds? He’s been getting harassing letters from the city for “years,” and he’s definitely improved it.

    • Under Pennsylvania adverse possession laws (which you are referring to) he would have no claim. He has never claimed to own the land, he’s simply improved it over the last few years.

      Adverse possession is somewhat based on the theory that the owner abandoned the land. Here, the RDA has clearly asserted that they own the land, and for whatever reason, they want to keep it a dilapidated lot.

      Ori also claims he tried to buy the land from the RDA and they refused him. There is no dispute that the RDA owns it.

      • OBQuiet says:

        Of course, the City’s attempts to fine him seems to be a clear abrogation of title. At least if he paid them.

  3. […] No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The City of Philadelphia threatens to sue local business owner for cleaning up a vacant lot […]

  4. What a HOOT. Thanks for the story Jordan. I put it up on my blog this morning. Do you happen to know what Ori’s hourly rate is for landscaping? I LOVE the results.

    http://goldencockroach.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/bumbling-bureaucrats-head-scratching-stupidity/

  5. […] A Philadelphia business owner decides to clean up and improve an adjacent, neglected city-owned lot, and soon has sad cause for regret [Philly Law Blog] […]

  6. John Fembup says:

    See, with government types, it’s never really about making anything better “for the people”. That’s just the cover story.

    It’s always – always – about power and control over the people.

    . . . which is why the Constitution is so important.

  7. […] Philadelphia: Neighbors Must Pay to Rebuild Crack Houses… This entry was posted by fakedrudge. /* […]

  8. DensityDuck says:

    It seems like a similar situation to trees that the city plants in easements. Property owners are required to maintain the trees at their expense, but are not permitted to remove the trees, add more trees (or other forms of landscaping), or prevent people from accessing the trees.

    So, where I live, if you have an apple tree in your front yard, you’re required to make sure it stays healthy, pay to have it trimmed if it grows into the power lines, and if some guy comes along and scrapes all the apples off it to sell at the local Farmer’s Market that’s just too bad for you. (Oh, and if the tree falls over you’re required to plant a new one–again at your own expense.)

  9. joecarsonlaw says:

    DensityDuck brings up a good point. Would be interesting to know more details of the area and what their requirements are for vegetation. Sounds like a good deed, and probably was at heart, but you have to know the rules.

  10. […] Philly Law Blog (GREAT blog, btw): In South Philadelphia, there is a vacant lot owned by the city through the […]

  11. […] Ori Feibush, a local lawyer, developer and coffee shop owner just grew tired of fighting the Redevelopment Authority over the lot next door to his coffee shop. It’s not like he didn’t try. He called, wrote and even showed up in person several times in an effort to remedy the problem. As usual, the RDA was more interested in leaving the unauthorized dump in place than making the problem go away. You can’t be a bureaucrat if you go around solving problems. Next thing you know, you’ve solved too many and you have nothing to bureaucrat over. […]

  12. […] Here is my concern… it’s such a good idea that the City of Philadelphia could blow the opportunity. Other projects being proposed for Center City, and South Philadelphia. They are also meeting large amounts of opposition from the neighborhoods, because the other locations don’t make any sense. But our government isn’t exactly known for common sense, either. […]

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