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Quincy to buy nine houses for school expansion

Quincy Solicitor James Timmins pointed out a house near North Quincy High School that may be reclaimed to build a parking lot.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Quincy Solicitor James Timmins pointed out a house near North Quincy High School that may be reclaimed to build a parking lot.

QUINCY — Since finding out that her house is among nine the city of Quincy is planning to take for a $12 million North Quincy High School campus expansion project, Vicki L. Tasney’s life has been filled with stress and uncertainty.

She was left in the lurch in May after the roommate of the tenant renting the other half of her Hunt Street duplex died. The remaining tenant can afford to pay less than half of the total rent, but Tasney said she cannot advertise for a new tenant because she does not know how much longer her family home will be standing.

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For her husband, Lawrence, the thought of losing the home they’ve lived in since 1973 has been harder to accept, she said.

“When I ask my husband what kind of house he wants, he says, ‘The one we have,’” Tasney said. “We’re not happy” with the situation.

City officials are hoping to buy all the homes under what they call friendly takings, by the end of the month, said City Solicitor James Timmins. They began negotiations with most of the property owners last month, days after the June 12 City Council authorization of the project’s financing, have already signed purchase-and-sale agreements with two homeowners, and are “very close” to signing with three others, he said.

Negotiations appear to be moving quickly. If agreements are not reached with everyone by the end of the month, Mayor Thomas P. Koch could look into seeking council approval to take the properties by eminent domain, which officials deem as a more “adversarial” process.

“I don’t see us shelving the project,” Koch said. “Eminent domain is a tool of last resort. It’s my full intention, and I believe we’ll get there, to do this with negotiations and friendly takings by consent.”

Under eminent domain, the city pays the landowner what it determined the property was worth in the initial appraisal, said Joel Faller, an associate with the Law Offices of the McLaughlin Brothers, a Boston firm specializing in eminent domain cases.

“Which in my experience is a fairly low-ball figure,” said Faller, whose firm is not involved in the Quincy matter. “The landowner can accept that as essentially a payment up front pending a later valuation by a jury, or can simply accept that and allow the city to take it for that amount.”

Last fall, city officials announced their intentions to go forward with the North Quincy High School project, encompassing the addition of a 157-space parking lot behind the school on Hunt Street. The lot will be adjacent to Teel Field, home of the school’s soccer and lacrosse teams, which would undergo a facelift with synthetic turf, grandstand bleachers, a concession stand, scoreboard, and sound system. Construction on the field is scheduled to start in September, Timmins said.

Beyond the campus enhancement, the project aims to address traffic and parking issues in the area, particularly during the morning and evening commutes, as well as flooding problems in the neighborhood with the addition of two water-retention ponds and other drainage improvements.

Engineer renderings of the project indicate that one of the proposed flood mitigation ponds would encompass property currently occupied by the homes on 18-20, 22, 24, and 26 Hunt St. The rest of the Hunt Street homes, 30-32, 34, 38-40, and 42-44, sit where a portion of the proposed parking lot would be. The property at 125 Newbury Ave. would be absorbed by the second flood-retention pond.

Tasney said officials have not initiated negotiations with her family, other than giving them a property appraisal, which she characterized as being $100,000 lower than two real estate agents told her the house could potentially sell on the open market. She declined to say how much officials offered her family for the home, which is currently assessed by the city at $398,100. She said the home was purchased for $28,000 in 1973, and that since then they’ve added two bedrooms, two kitchens, and two bathrooms.

“My house is a duplex. If we were really going to be selling it, we’d be setting it up as condos,” Tasney said. “This is not something we ever expected. ... It’s nine homes, 12 families, and over 30 people for a parking lot.”

North Quincy has become a desirable area for homebuyers and renters alike for its proximity to Boston and the MBTA’s Red Line, said Jayne Magown, broker owner at Century 21 Abigail Adams Agency in Quincy. The city’s latest property assessments as of Jan. 1, 2013, are not reflective of current fair market values, which have increased by approximately 6 or 7 percent over the past 12 months, Magown said.

“That’s a lot,” she said. “In that area, behind North Quincy High School ... in fairly good condition, [the homes] would be worth in the high $300s to low $400s with the proximity to the T.”

The family is discussing options with a lawyer, but Tasney said the eminent domain card creates a fear factor.

“I’m afraid with eminent domain we won’t get what we’re asking,” she said, adding that although an attorney suggested early on that the neighbors negotiate with the city together, it was difficult to communicate with the neighbors who spoke limited English. Five of the families involved are Asian -- three Chinese and two Vietnamese, Timmins said. Aside from Tasney, the homeowners could not be reached for comment or declined to comment, with one expressing concerns that discussing the issue would lead to “a mistake” in negotiations with the city.

City Council president Joseph G. Finn said he hopes the city can reach consensual agreements with each of the homeowners.

“Taking a residential property, a homeowner’s property, by eminent domain is a pretty serious, serious matter that would require some serious debate from the City Council,” Finn said.

Ward 6 Councilor Brian F. McNamee, who represents the affected area, said balancing the project with what it takes to get it done is a difficult situation.

“There’s a greater good here,” McNamee said. “I’m not so sure that if it’s an eminent domain situation that I’m going to be enthusiastic about it. ... I’m hoping it will be a friendly taking and it won’t be adversarial.”

Through eminent domain, a power given to governments allowing them to take private property as long as it serves a public purpose, the city would be required to obtain two independent appraisals for each property and then a third one that would calculate the properties’ fair market value based on the prior two appraisals. Instead of doing that, Quincy officials commissioned one independent appraisal report with the intent of passing the savings on to the homeowners, Timmins said.

“We’re keeping the money in the pot and trying to pay it directly to the homeowners as part of their mitigation when they leave,” Timmins said. “The theory behind it is they’re sitting in their living rooms today unmolested and they don’t want to move; well, the city comes in and says, ‘You have to go,’ [which means] we have to pay for every cost that they incur in the process of moving: lawyers, realtors, anything.”

The property takings, including fees and relocation costs, are part of the project’s $12 million budget. Koch said the takings could equate to roughly a third of the total budget, or about $4 million.

Timmins said that once agreements are reached, the city will adjust construction schedules if any of the homeowners need additional time to live in their homes until they relocate. As he walked past the homes on Hunt Street last week, Timmins said it’s hard not to sympathize with the homeowners, especially those who have taken great care of their properties for many years.

“The impact on the neighbors, part of their responses to what’s going on, is completely understandable and unavoidable. We are aware we’re taking people’s homes, but we’ve been very sensitive about it,” he said. “There is some difficulty in a project like this that we can’t avoid and we understand that, but we are doing everything we can to be very sensitive and to deal with the issues being faced by the neighbors.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.
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