Sunday, June 23, 2024

Cambridge’s Election Commission is puzzling over a property where Harris and Eustis streets meet near the Somerville city line. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A city-line dispute that could upend the lives of dozens of residents emerged Wednesday at a Cambridge Election Commission hearing.

But are they residents of Cambridge? Or Somerville?

The case centers around Sam Seidel, an urban-planning consultant and former city councillor who lives on Harris Street, Cambridge, in a two-family home that was built on Eustis Street, Somerville. The home didn’t move: The address was changed in 2003 by request of the real estate agent that developed the home into condominiums.

The house is a block south of Beacon Street, near Petsi Pies and a Star Market grocery store. Street plans show the city line cutting neatly across the home’s front, placing its unenclosed porch in Cambridge and the front-facing bedrooms just over the line in Somerville.

Sam Seidel and Heather Hoffman at Wednesday’s meeting of Cambridge’s Election Commission. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“I have Cambridge services for everything – fire, police, trash pickup,” Seidel told election commissioners. Though having automatic bill pay set up obscures the issue, he thought he might pay water and sewer bills to Cambridge too.

But his tax bills go to Somerville.

“I am told, and I have not dug into this, that it is an arrangement between finance departments … that one place collects the taxes and distributes it across cities,” Seidel said. “But Somerville is the entity that collects my taxes.”

Heather Hoffman, a real estate title examiner and lawyer arguing against Seidel as a representative for the absent activist Charles Teague, said that in her 30-plus years of work she had never seen such an arrangement as Seidel described. “In every single case, there have been separate tax bills,” she said.

To her and Teague, whose activism has most recently been around trees, that makes the case: Seidel is a Somerville resident who should not vote in Cambridge, though he is on Cambridge election rolls. Seidel thinks of himself as a Cantabrigian.

A plan from the early 2000s shows how the city line puts a home’s porch in Cambridge and the rest in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Election commissioners, eyeing maps that show the city line cutting across homes all the way down the block, opted not to decide Wednesday, but to recess and do more research before reconvening March 1. “This is going to affect quite a bit – it’s going to affect several lives, it’s going to affect children, it’s going to affect taxpayers and voters,” Election Commission executive director Tanya Ford-Crump said. “Once you open this can, it’s going to all come out. We need backing. We need more information than what we are being provided with.”

With so many residents of the street – including Seidel’s neighbor in a two-family condominium – commissioners wondered by Teague had singled out Seidel.

While serving as lawyer for Teague while he was out of town – he is expected to be at the March 1 hearing – Hoffman said she didn’t know.

Why this case

Reached by phone after the meeting, Seidel theorized that Teague was upset that he’d written a letter to the Planning Board in support of a two-block upzoning in North Cambridge known as the Barrett petition. He recounted coming home the night of Dec. 21, the day after a board hearing, to find a man “standing on my steps, looking in my windows, looking in my mailbox and photographing my house.” When he asked why, the man said he’d smelled gas coming from an exhaust valve at the house – “It does give off a slight gas smell,” Seidel said – and walked away. Realizing who it was, Seidel ran after him, calling out “Charlie Teague” three times, Seidel said, the last time face to face. At the time, Teague said he was in the area looking at a potential development property and smelled gas.

Seidel doesn’t buy it. The behavior was “creepy,” Seidel said.

There was no hesitation from Teague about motive when reached by phone Wednesday: He said Seidel was committing voter fraud – and that it wasn’t a letter to the Planning Board that drew his attention, but his signing of the zoning petition that helped allow it to be heard by the Planning Board.

“I read the zoning petition and there was his big fat name. And I said, I didn’t think he lived in Cambridge. And you know, I was right, he doesn’t,” Teague said. Referring to Seidel voting in Cambridge, Teague said, “This is just a fraud. This is just a lie.”

Seidel, when called back, recalled that he had signed the petition. “He’s right – I am a signer to a zoning petition. I put my name down,” Seidel said. “I’m pretty sure that is correct. And at some subsequent point, I wrote a letter in support.”

Back to 1839

The Election Commission’s discussion Wednesday hinted at the complexity of the decision members will face about how to judge if Seidel votes properly in Cambridge or Somerville. Case law around city-line disputes looks to “the primary purpose” of a property and might hinge on where someone sleeps, which might be different from where a bedroom is. Lesley Waxman, assistant director of Cambridge’s Election Commission, noted that relevant case law goes back to 1839 – raising laughs from commissioners – but “they don’t give you a hard and fast rule. It’s a question of fact that you have to determine on a case-by-case basis.”

That could lead to complications not just for residents of Harris Street, but two to three miles of border with Somerville as well as where Cambridge meets Arlington, Belmont and Watertown. Though it was the impression Wednesday that city-line residents with school-age kids could choose which school district they preferred, that too needed research.

“It’s hard for me to understand what public good is being derived from this,” Seidel told commissioners of the case. And later recounting more of his testimony: “You can’t single out one person for a quote-unquote violation … there are a whole lot of properties that that are impacted by this border-property status. You can’t just pluck one out of the hat.”

This post was updated Feb. 23, 2023, to add background on Charles Teague.

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