Mail mishap loses neighbor’s lawsuit against developer
The Long Funeral Home lawsuit was thrown out yesterday by a Middlesex Superior Court judge who ruled that developer and former city building inspector Husam “Sam” Azzam — missing from court — was “indispensable” to the proceedings against him and the city.
After all, it is Azzam’s 55-foot-tall, 15-unit condo at Porter Square that residents were suing the city over — that is, for allowing him to build over the circa-1875 Long Funeral Home and call it an addition instead of new construction.
Azzam had not been served properly with a notice to appear in court, Judge Herman Smith Jr. said, dismissing the case. The move sent shock waves through the Porter Square community.
The decision left two of the five plaintiffs, Susan Hunziker and Karen Klinger, “stunned,” a feeling shared by several spectators from the Porter Square Neighbors Association, which objects to the building and has fought the city over it for years.
Even the city’s lawyer, Nancy Glowa, argued it was important to have Azzam in court — especially since the decision could affect what he can do with the property.
Azzam owns the adjoining 4 Beech St. and 1979 Massachusetts Ave., the former funeral home, which was to be converted to an office building before Azzam changed plans to build 15 residential units and an office. The “addition” was 5,800 square feet, Azzam said, under the 6,000-square-foot threshold for large-scale review by the city. It allowed him to avoid the need for approval from the historical commission, and the threshold has since been lowered to 2,000 square feet.
A law about parking requirements has recently been changed by the city as a direct result of the Azzam building — because it is not considered new construction, he did not need to add one parking space for each additional unit.
“No one wants to hear about these issues,” Hunziker said as she left the court. “He was granted permits as an existing structure. If it was termed new construction, there would have been parking requirements.”
Klinger was equally upset, and said it sets a dangerous precedent for anyone who wants to dodge a certified letter requiring a court appearance.
“It could have broad implications for the legal system,” Klinger said. “If someone is good at being an artful dodger, then the plaintiff never has his day in court.”
Their lawyer, Thomas Bracken, had argued that Azzam knew of the court case and hearing date, and had even been sent all the correspondence regarding the case by Glowa.
Bracken said he sent notice via certified mail to Azzam — just as he did with the city — telling him he was being sued, but the Azzam letter had never been picked up. The card was returned. So the whole case came down to whether that constituted proper service.
The judge was at first inclined to dismiss the case without prejudice to give the plaintiffs a chance to bring in Azzam. Glowa argued that the case had already dragged on long enough, and she pushed for dismissal with prejudice, which would put an end to the case.
Bracken insisted that sending Azzam notice via certified mail met the criteria of the law.
And it didn’t matter that he had only attempted to serve Azzam through certified mail, Bracken said, because Azzam’s presence was not necessary for the lawsuit against the city to go forward.
“I am not buying it,” Smith told him. “On what basis can I hear this case without a key party being present?”
Word of the city’s victory apparently traveled quickly through town.
Later in the afternoon, Azzam, who knew of the proceedings but was unaware of the outcome, said a woman had accosted him on the street while he was walking his puppy, Ginger, in front of his building.
“She said I ruined the neighborhood,” he said.
Azzam, 45, who is Palestinian, said his new address — 1979 Massachusetts Ave. — has special significance to him because 1979 is the year he came to America. He intends to live in the building and raise his two sons there. And he’s tired of all the animosity.
“She yelled at me; she called me greedy,” Azzam said. “I told her ‘I live here now.’ She said I should be ashamed of myself for what I did here, and that my mother should be ashamed of me.”
Azzam’s mother died in childbirth in 1966, along with the baby who would have been his younger sister, he said, so the woman’s comments really hurt.
“She said it’s an ugly building,” he added. “I told her I think it’s beautiful.”
Even other dogs — tiny ankle biters — growled at Azzam and his friendly shepherd puppy while Azzam recounted the encounter with the woman, who did not identify herself.
“Maybe she was just venting,” he said, after learning of the court case going in his and the city’s favor. He said he had been thinking of going to watch the proceedings, but joked that if he had, he would have been in trouble because it was his absence that clinched the victory.
He wants to start over with the neighbors, he said, and get past this hubbub over the “monstrosity” that he built that has everyone so upset.
“I hope to someday be neighbors and friends” with these people, he said.
Not many people really know Azzam aside from what they have read in the newspapers, which has been mostly negative.
Before coming to America, he had it tough, he said, recounting a life that began in 1960, when the West Bank was annexed by Jordan, before Israeli occupation.
“I was hiding in camps during the Six-Day War,” he said. “The whole time we thought we went camping” because his parents didn’t tell him it was a war.
When the war was over, he went to Kuwait, while his brother, Rashed, made good in America and earned his doctorate.
“He got me an acceptance at Northeastern. He applied for the student visa for me,” Azzam said. While going to school he had to work at a discount store for a while, doing both full time. He worked 30 hours on the weekends.
He started working for the city in 1986, the same year he became a U.S. citizen, and was almost immediately bored to death. He joined the Navy because he wanted to fly, he said, and became a lieutenant. He was put in charge of communications, he noted with humor, “and English is my second language.”
In 1989 he returned to his job as a city building inspector, but was already involved in buying a property in Quincy with a no-money-down veterans loan. That’s how he got started as a developer.
He lived in one apartment of the three-family house and rented the other two, a model he followed when buying more properties and fixing them up.
In 1995, he said, he had to resign from his job at the building department, because there was an inherent conflict with being a building inspector in the same town in which he was wheeling and dealing in the real estate market.
But he has no regrets, and Azzam insists he never crossed the line ethically, despite allegations of all types of corruption.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the case dismissed against him and the city say they will appeal, even if it costs them another $10,000 in legal fees.
“We don’t want it to go away without being heard,” Klinger said.