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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Somerville alderman locked in legal battle with constituents

Somerville Alderman Sean O'Donovan is engaged in a legal battle with his constituents over his plans to develop a plot of land that neighbors say is not large enough for the project.

Local residents filed a lawsuit against O'Donovan, a lawyer and businessman, in June, and the alderman put forward a countersuit in August.

O'Donovan and his business partner, Felix Consilvio, aim to build five housing units on a lot at 42 Craigie St. in Somerville. A three-family home currently sits on the property, which is located in Ward 3. O'Donovan represents Ward 5, but the property in question lies near the border between the two wards.

Neighborhood residents have expressed concern that the project, which will add two buildings to the lot, is too ambitious for the property and will kill several mature trees, including a 100-year-old elm.

The developers say they have taken neighborhood concerns into account and have met all zoning requirements.

Consilvio applied for a permit to build the structures with the Somerville Zoning Board of Appeals in mid-February. Eight of O'Donovan's constituents filed suit against him and Consilvio in June, claiming that the plans did not fall in line with zoning requirements. The board approved the project unanimously the following month.

In August, the developers filed a countersuit against the residents, claiming promissory estoppel, a legal principle that prevents a party from reneging on a promise made in the past.

The developers' lawyer, Gerry D'Ambrosio, called the counterclaim a defensive measure.

"If a party makes certain requests and another party relies on them, then they are bound by [those requests]," D'Ambrosio told the Daily. "When this project [was] being vetted through the Somerville Zoning Board, there were public hearings. During these hearings, neighbors showed up and made suggestions, which we incorporated. But they still sued us."

Kevin Patton-Hock, one of the eight residents suing the developers, said the group had at no point agreed to the project.

Plans for the development were revealed to the public at a neighborhood meeting in March, according to Patton-Hock. Residents generally supported the idea of development, but "most [residents at the meeting] expressed unhappiness with the way the plan was laid out," he told the Daily.

Four community meetings followed, but few changes were made to the plans, Patton-Hock said. One-hundred-and-twenty residents signed a petition against the project, and some gave testimony at a July zoning board hearing.

"By my count, three people supported it within the neighborhood and 20 or 30 opposed it," Patton-Hock said of the July hearing's attendees. After the zoning board approved the plans, "a large part of the neighborhood [felt] like they weren't listened to," he said.

O'Donovan and Consilvio applied for the permit as private developers, but Patton-Hock said the alderman used his political sway to influence the decision.

"He managed to get it through partially because of who he is," Patton-Hock said. "It's very difficult to go against fellow aldermen. If a ward alderman is opposed, that typically carries a great deal of weight."

Alderman Thomas Taylor, who represents Ward 3, has expressed opposition to the project. Alderman-at-Large Bruce Desmond, however, said that he supported the board's decision because the plans were within zoning requirements.

"[The developers] have gone above and beyond trying to be cooperative," Desmond told the Daily. "I don't think Alderman O'Donovan, as a private citizen, has to give up his rights. He's not suing as an alderman; he's suing as a citizen. I think that's important to note."

O'Donovan and Consilvio did not respond to calls requesting interviews.

Based on a dimensional analysis of the project, which D'Ambrosio shared with the Daily, the site's plans are within the minimum and maximum zoning bylaws governing the lot. The site plans estimate that the development will be close to 10,100 square feet. The current lot size is over 15,300 square feet, according to the analysis.

"We could have built 15,000 square feet on this lot," D'Ambrosio said. "It's more conservative than it could have been."

D'Ambrosio found some of the neighbors' requests unreasonable. "I think that any time there is a development project, neighbors who are sometimes anti-development get upset," he said. "That's why we try to work with them, [but] sometimes they don't want to see change in their neighborhood."

Patton-Hock countered that the residents are hoping for the density of the project to be reduced and more trees to be preserved on the site.

"We're not rich developers, just neighbors who want to take care of our neighborhood. We'd love to see more housing in Somerville, just not eight units on a land that was [made] for three," Patton-Hock said.

D'Ambrosio said that he and the developers remain confident that the judge will side with them. "We have a very strong case. We're not too concerned about the merits … because we're pretty sure it will work out in our favor," he said.

Patton-Hock said that the residents would be happy to settle the case through mediation, but the two developers have not yet agreed to such an option.

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