My cousin Vinnie, the suburban real estate attorney, and I, recently met in the North End before a Celtics game. It was great to see himbecause I had missed the annual family Post Christmas Party at our cousin Carmella’s house. Vinnie filled me in on the current foibles of our various relatives, and provided me with a painfully detailed description of status of Aunt Mary’s cruise to Nova Scotia. Sorry I missed it.
Vinnie swirled his bread around the residual red sauce in his plate previously filled with chicken cacciatore, as he shifted the conversation to his small practice. “Paulie”, he said with a mouth filled with bread soaked in sauce, “I have a new client who has been in a years-long battle with a local building commissioner who claims that the use of his property for an auto repair shop and selling used cars is unlawful. The commissioner is correct that the uses are not allowed in the zoning district. My client provided me with a 6 inch high pile of correspondence between he and the town, peppered with correspondence from his former attorney. It seems his former attorney specialized in criminal law (when not working on his part-time thespian career). He penned a series of inflammatory demand letters to the town manager, the building commissioner and the town planner asserting all sorts of mischief including violations of his client’s civil rights, unequal treatment under the law, injustices and shenanigans. It came as no surprise to me that the matter was not resolved and the town was turning up the heat on the landowner.”
I think Vinnie is hilarious, but I interrupted him “That sounds like trying to deal with the medical profession. If you ask for a diagnosis from a surgeon, don’t be surprised if the surgeon recommends surgery, even if you don’t need it!” Vinnie replied “Right; sometimes you just need the right physical therapist.”
Vinnie went on. “I went through the client’s pile of paperwork. Something in the pile suggested that the property had been used for auto repair for decades. I checked the Assessors’ property record cards and flipped through the old files in the Building Department. I found a history of Class II Used Car Dealer’s licenses in the Selectmen’s records, as the December meeting minutes always list the annual license renewals. I checked the registry of deeds and identified the names of the various owners of the property over the years and found that they were in the auto repair business from their corporate purpose statements on file with the Secretary of State. I then went back to town hall to wade through copies of the zoning bylaw from the past 30 years to determine when the uses became unlawful in the zoning district. Turns out the uses are protected as lawfully pre-existing nonconforming uses. I bundled together my evidence and had a cup of coffee with the building commissioner and the town planner. Case closed.”
I was nodding my head in the affirmative throughout his story. His approach was spot on, and second nature for a land use guy. Vinnie concluded by saying: “Like most of our brethren, I like to think that I am pretty good at ‘issue identification’ and I try to send prospective clients in the right direction. I find that even when I turn people away and recommend that they see another specialist, it is not uncommon to hear from them again in the future when they are dealing with a real estate issue; which is one of the benefits of practicing for a long time. I wish all physicians were better at issue identification.”
I couldn’t agree with him more.
A former REBA president, Paul Alphen currently serves on the association’s executive committee and co-chairs the long-range planning committee. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Abstract Club. He is a partner in the Westford firm of Alphen & Santos, P.C. and concentrates in residential and commercial real estate development, land use regulation, administrative law, real estate transactional practice and title examination .As entertaining as he finds the practice of law, Paul enjoys numerous hobbies, including messing around with his power boats and fulfilling his bucket list of visiting every Major League ballpark. Paul can be contacted at email@example.com.