Monday, June 24, 2024

Parcels around Webster Avenue have been emptied and combined for potential sale to the City of Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City councillors have plenty to dig into concerning land in Wellington-Harrington at their Monday meeting.

City staff brought forward the combined four parcels May 8 as a friendly eminent domain purchase for $14.4 million that could be turned into a 0.8-acre depot for Public Works equipment; councillors put debate on hold for a week to bring forward a policy order moving the land toward use for affordable housing.

A search of records for the land raises questions about whether all four parcels are owned by the seller, identified as Webster Avenue Ventures LLC.

The registered agent for that company is lawyer and affordable-housing developer Sean Hope – and there is also no other name that can be found as associated with the company, meaning Hope may represent himself in the deal rather than other officers or investors. Messages seeking comments from Hope on May 5 and Monday have not been returned.

“What we’re buying is an assembled parcel,” chief assessor Gayle Willett said May 8, explaining the cost of the deal to city councillors

Councillor Patty Nolan expressed concern during a May 8 meeting that the city would be overpaying for 0.8 acres it could have assembled itself. City Manager Yi-An Huang said thee were too many complexities to second-guess his staff, referring to “private sales between buyers where people are coming to agreements that aren’t necessarily market prices.”

“We’re not buying commodities, ultimately. Every parcel of land is unique,” Huang said. 

Confusing aspects of title search

Cambridge Day turned to lawyer and title investigator Heather Hoffman for insight into ownership of the parcels. Hoffman found that Webster Avenue Ventures doesn’t own the parcel that crosses into Somerville, and that prices for the two parcels next to it – which have the same owner – were $1. Property at 315-327 Webster Ave. was bought for $3.8 million, but a mortgage for that amount was taken back by the seller, meaning the company didn’t pay any actual money, the title search suggests.

“He may have thought he acquired it. For all I know, the registered land section rejected the deed because the trustee’s certificate didn’t clearly authorize a deed for $1,” Hoffman found in her research. Municipal lien certificates usually found attached to deeds are also missing, she said.

Among the identified sellers were Judith A. Scollon, of Nevada, and two more people in Weymouth. Scollon previously owned a property on River Street in the Riverside neighborhood. It’s unclear what connection between Hope and A&B Realty Trust would lead Scollon and the Weymouth officers to convey their property for $1.

The parcel at 319 Webster Ave. also appears to be encumbered by a lawsuit regarding another buyer, with a most recent docket entry of June 17, 2021, that says the status of the case is pending.

Timeline for a purchase

Councillors and city staff met behind closed doors Feb. 27 to discuss a potential land acquisition. The topic and discussions of those meetings are not public record, but there have been no executive sessions about property since. 

Webster Avenue Ventures was formed 15 days later, on March 14, according to state records, with its timing and name suggesting that its sole purpose is to buy the parcels now of interest to the city: 333 Webster Ave., until recently the offices and impound lot of Phil’s Towing; 455 Columbia St., the E&C Bottle & Can Return recycling center at 319 Webster Ave., which was shut down by its owner April 14; and a “mostly vacant” space at 94 Webster Ave., Somerville, identified by the city as “historically used as an automobile junkyard.”

Webster Avenue Ventures bought the properties May 3, according to Hoffman’s title search.

When the combined land was brought to the council May 8, however, city staff said the deal was largely in hand a week earlier, which would have been two days before the recorded purchases.

“We were hoping to have this before the council on May 1. They granted us an extension to May 8,” said director of assessment Bob Reardon, referring to the sellers. “But I don’t know what would happen if this deadline slips any further. The seller could entertain other offers.”

Even after a day of research, there remained confusing aspects of the deal, Hoffman said.

“All I know is that we need a better explanation before anyone should vote yes,” Hoffman said of councillors who would have to approve the deal.

A voice mail was left with city spokesperson Lee Gianetti on Monday afternoon seeking comment from staff.