Philadelphia Cracks Down On Business Owner For Cleaning Up Vacant Lot

When I was growing up in Central New Jersey, Philadelphia had become known, not so affectionately, as “Filthy-delphia” in recognition of the fact that the city had become, well, rather dirty looking. Apparently, the current government of Philadelphia wants to keep it that way:

THE CITY-OWNED lot, neighbors say, was in deplorable shape, thick with weeds and trash. So when a business owner cleaned it up last month, spending more than $20,000 and removing, by his count, more than 40 tons of debris, Point Breeze residents went out of their way to pass 20th and Annin streets to see the changes.

“This was a lot of garbage,” Elaine McGrath said as she took in the carefully tended plantings and wooden benches. “Now it’s gorgeous. I’m excited.”

But not everyone is happy with the alterations – namely, the lot’s owner, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

Paul D. Chrystie, director of communications at the Office of Housing and Community Development, said it’s a simple matter of trespassing. In an email, he said: “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.

(…)

In letters and emails, the authority has threatened to take legal action against Feibush. Chrystie said the agency “is actively reviewing its options at this time.”

“They said we need to return it to the condition we found it in immediately,” Feibush said.

That shocks McGrath, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years.

“They liked it filled with garbage and broken glass?” she asked. “I can’t imagine why the city would be upset.”

Megan McArdle comments:

This does raise some interesting legal questions: does he have to put back the exact garbage that was there, or will any 40 tons of garbage do?  Must the broken glass go back exactly where it was, or may it be arranged in decorative patterns for the beautificatoin of the neighborhood?

It also harkens back to an old policy problem: excessively rule-bound government frequently does stuff that makes perfect sense within the rules, but is also perfectly idiotic when viewed from any other perspectives.  The more we expand liability, and the tighter we wind the red tape, the more foolish outcomes like this we will see.

Technically, I suppose the City does have a point about the Trespassing issue, but this strikes me as an example bureaucracy gone nuts. Feibush has apparently expressed interested in purchasing the lot several times, only to get no response at all from the City. That alone is bizarre because this lot is one of about 1,500 in the city that they are supposedly trying to sell, would any private property owner ignore an inquiry from someone interested in purchasing their property? I would think not. Moreover, if they wanted to sell the property, shouldn’t they be thanking Feibush for cleaning it up? After all, who wants to buy an abandoned lot filled with 40 tons of garbage?

Government at work, I suppose.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Government, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. The Monster says:

    If a private landowner let that same property fall into such a state, the city would be able to pay a contractor to abate the nuisance, and send the property owner a bill. If anything, he should be deeded the property under adverse possession and the spirit of the Homestead Act. He’s the only one working to improve the property, so he deserves to own it.

  2. It would be one thing if they were saying McGrath somehow degraded the property in a misguided effort to clean it up, but a flat “trespassing” charge is not the right way to do it.

    (I remember a LA Times columnist who shared his story of owning an empty lot. Part of the fire regulation was that it be mowed each year to reduce fire danger. One year he got a letter asking him if he could mow one month late because his lot was a breeding ground for an endangered butterfly. Stuff like that is great, and the columnist enjoyed knowing that he was helping the butterfly.)

  3. James in LA says:

    This is another example of government unable to keep up. Simple plans with immediate action can be approved in seconds with an iPad. If you got all the people paid (and not) who have reviewed this case together, I doubt any one of them would object to the spirit of what happened. Government isn’t necessarily evil, but it sure is one stupid idjit of a moron sometimes.

    The alternative was to force the cleaner-uppers to wait, perhaps indefinitely. And the generation aged 40 and younger, raised in digital age, are not going to be in a waiting mood in the future when they come to power.

    The next evolution of social media will include direct participation in politics. Most of what we need from government is competent administration, and much of that can be given to automation.

    It will be coming because we have no more time to waste on t his kind of nonsense.

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Hell, this is nothing. When I was growing up in NYC there were so many arsons — in large part by business owners and landlords looking for ways to make ends meet in the Cartereconomy and its aftermath — the NYFD came up with the strategy of letting entire city blocks burn to the ground, thereby to deprive of “fuel” what inevitably would be the next round of arsons. Seriously.

    Regarding Philly deciding to penalize someone for cleaning up a bit, well, obviously that’s not at all surprising. Arguably Philly is the worst of the worst. Politics and policies matter.

  5. What makes this especially Kafkaesque is that last August, the city fined Feibush for the trash on the lot:

    http://www.aroundphilly.com/blog/2012/09/19/realtor-refurbishes-vacant-lot-officials-instruct-him-to-put-trash-back/

  6. JKB says:

    Well, we can’t discount, this being a redevelopment agency, that they were letting the lot become a hazard and eyesore to support a future case for taking control of the whole neighborhood which would then be sold off to some politically-connected developer through eminent domain. That certainly fits with their refusal to entertain any offers to buy for this supposedly “for sell” property.

    As for the trespass, perhaps they do need to take action to protect their rights, although being government being able to enforce an adverse possession is dubious. But, such rights could be retained by simply demanding the business owner acknowledge their ownership, forego any claims that may arise from his “redevelopment” and consent to stop future incursions.

    Given the simple solution to the property rights issue, I lean toward the redevelopment agency using their letting the property become a public hazard as an excuse to condemn the whole area as a “redevelopment zone.”

    BTW, aren’t their health/zoning standards that the city was willfully ignoring? I remember when I lived in Maryland. Everytime it snowed the news would be full of the requirement to immediately clear the sidewalk in front of your property. My commute, due the train stop location in relation to the federal office buildings, required the walking in front of a derelict property owned by the country. Funny, while they were out citing homeowners and business for taking an extra 2 hours to clear their sidewalks, the sidewalk around this property was never cleared and became an icy hazard as the snow was tramped down to become ice over the week or so it would lay. But then one of the few constants in life is government corruption and unaccountability for the same requirements they impose on private citizens.

  7. Dave A says:

    Is liability actually an issue if he was trespassing in the first place?

  8. Rafer Janders says:

    Hold on. Doug’s headline is “Philadelphia Fines Business Owner For Cleaning Up Vacant Lot”, but when I read the article, I see no mention of any fine levied. At most, it says that:

    ‘In letters and emails, the authority has threatened to take legal action against Feibush. Chrystie said the agency “is actively reviewing its options at this time.”‘

    So it sounds as if they’ve threatened — but not taken — legal action, as any property owner would if it wanted to reserve its rights, and are otherwise “reviewing their options”. So where does this claim that the property owner was already fined come from? Certainly not from the linked article. Is there a source for this?

  9. Rob in CT says:

    It would be deeply stupid for the city to press this.

    It would be smart for the city to have instead praised the guy’s efforts.

    Sure, technically it was tresspassing, but why punch a gift horse in the mouth.

    Dumb de dumb dumb

  10. David M says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    You may be answering the liability question here, if there’s only a warning letter, but no fine. This could simply be poorly executed attempt to make sure the city doesn’t appear to be granting tacit permission to anyone trespassing, renovating, cleaning up any random city property they feel like.

  11. Mr. Replica says:

    Being someone who as lived 15-20 minutes outside of Philly for their entire lives(and never really stepping foot in the lower income neighbor hoods that that make up parts of Philly) I can’t see how cleaning up a tremendous eye-sore such as this, is a such bad thing.
    It allows the people to improve the area in which their livelihoods are dependent on. Allowing for people to not feel that the area is any more shady than it needs to be. Possibly improving business and moral.

    I would throw this over-step by the authorities under the category of a government feeling embarrassed that they were shown to be incompetent, and that had to therefore punish those who would dare try to show them up.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    They said we need to return it to the condition we found it in immediately

    They need to commit a crime? (Litter, Open-dumping)

    Bwah-ha-ha-ha!!! They’re so screwed.

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @David M:

    You may be answering the liability question here, if there’s only a warning letter, but no fine.

    But that’s my question: where is Doug getting his headline from? The headline claims a fine was imposed, but that’s nowhere mentioned in the article. Shouldn’t the headline read “Philadelphia Sends Sternly Worded Letter To Business Owner For Cleaning Up Vacant Lot”? I realize that doesn’t angry up the blood the way Doug probably intended his headline to, but it has the virtue of actually being accurate.

  14. @this:

    Somebody’s a butterfly hater 😉 and probably needs a hug

  15. PD Shaw says:

    Doug, I think you misread the article. He appears to have been fined for not cleaining up the lot:

    In the past few years, he’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.

    So, I think your title should read “Philadelphia Fines Business Owner for Not Cleaning Up Vacant Lot and Threatens Legal Action for Cleaining Up Vacant Lot.” Are is that not pithy enough?

  16. Just Me says:

    Well, we can’t discount, this being a redevelopment agency, that they were letting the lot become a hazard and eyesore to support a future case for taking control of the whole neighborhood which would then be sold off to some politically-connected developer through eminent domain. That certainly fits with their refusal to entertain any offers to buy for this supposedly “for sell” property.

    I think this is very likely why the city allowed the lot to contain 40 tons of trash and weeds, while ignoring a man who wanted to purchase the property.

    I can also understand why a businessman would resent the eyesore that the lot had degenerated into-there is no way the city had done any maintenance on that lot for years.

  17. Clanton says:

    “excessive rule bound government”: This is what has been going on for years from the Federal, state, and local governments. And a good reason to cut government spending and regulations.
    In a small town in Georgia, the city council stopped a man from growing vegetables in his own yard; probably because it took business away from the city sponsored farmers’ market. The government at all levels have way too many employees sitting around with nothing to do so they have to think up stuff to justify their jobs. The residents need to protest this and demand get some kind of an award for trying to help the trashy city!

  18. Scott O says:

    Whenever I read a story that sounds too bizarre to be true I figure there may be another side to tale. Google to the rescue.

    http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20120920_Letters___Lot_of_Trouble___Another_view.html

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    @Scott O:

    Good work, Scott. I expect Doug to update his post, and to correct his misleading headline, in about five, four, three, two…oh, who am I kidding.

  20. @Scott O:

    Except that Feibush has released e-mail traffic to show that Chrystie was lying when he wrote “Mr. Feibush could have sought to lease the property from the Redevelopment Authority. It is not a difficult process, but Mr. Feibush chose not to pursue it”. Feibush did in fact pursue buying the lot, but the RDA refused to respond to his applications.

  21. Dexter says:

    For more stories of this type, go to Readers Digest, “That’s Outrageous”. This details credible and truthful accounts that you won’t believe.

  22. Scott O says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Those emails show that the Redevelopment Authority sent forms to Mr. Feibush’s attorney. They don’t show that Mr. Feibush pursued the matter further. That article says:

    This definitively debunks the claim made by Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald in today’s Daily News that “a letter that Feibush sent Tuesday to the authority was his first official declaration of interest in buying the property.”

    Is it possible that the Tuesday letter was his first offical declaration of interest in buying the property?

  23. @Scott O:

    Yes, but they were claiming to have never heard from him at all. We now know that is an incorrect statement. That gives us reason to suspect their other claims may be incorrect as well.

  24. Scott O says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Who claimed they never heard from him at all? And did you notice in those pictures that Mr. Feibush set up some outdoor seating for his business on property that he doesn’t own?

  25. David M says:

    By the way, was it 40 tons of garbage, or 40 tons of debris, rocks, dirt, trees, etc that needed removed before he renovated? Pretty big difference.

    Given that he did not just clean up the lot, but basically built an addition for his business on the lot, I’m not sure the city wants to encourage more of this. As far as the liability goes, the city is probably liable for anything that happens on the lot, now that the barricades are down and seating areas added.

    Crappy situation, but it’s hard to see the owner as anything but an entitled jackass, even if the owner of the property (city) wasn’t as responsive as he wanted. Since when does a for sale sign mean you can take something if the owner doesn’t respond as fast as you want?

  26. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    Would seem to keep alive the old Philly joke from the Bronx of my youth; First Prize is an all-expense-paid week in Philly; Second Prize is two all-expense-paid weeks in Philly.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Government at work, I suppose.

    No Doug, stupidity at work, and that is hardly something limited to government. But then, that is something a Libertarian is incapable of recognizing.

  28. Rafer Janders says:

    Doug, it’s been a day now, and you still have up your misleading headline about the city fining Feibush, when the article you linked to shows no such fine. You misread the article, and in your haste, and without double-checking, put up a false headline. Why no correction or acknowledgment? I’d expect simple intellectual honesty — or a sense of shame — would make you want to correct your error.

  29. slimslowslider says:

    The cranky meter continues to go through the roof.

  30. Bob2 says:

    Oh please, Doug cited Megan.
    Of course he can’t backtrack now.
    It fits his narrative worldview.

    Also, I wonder if Doug is of an age to have hobnobbed at Rutgers with James O’Keefe at the Centurion.