City of Providence v. Estate of Tarro, C. A. No. PC 07-0673

CourtSuperior Court of Rhode Island
Decision Date10 April 2008
Docket NumberC. A. No. PC 07-0673



C. A. No. PC 07-0673

Superior Court of Rhode Island

April 10, 2008



Before this Court for decision is a suit by Plaintiff, the City of Providence ("City"), against Defendants, Estate of Stephen A. Tarro, Richard M. Tarro, Michael A. Tarro, Patricia Tarro, and Bilray Demolition Co., Inc. The City seeks to fine Defendants for attempted demolition of a building without a permit; an order enjoining further demolition and requiring safeguarding of the building; and restoration of the building should Defendants not obtain a demolition permit. The Defendants counterclaim, seeking a writ of mandamus ordering the City to issue a demolition permit.


Facts and Travel

"Delay always breeds danger; and to protract a great design is often to ruin it." - Miguel de Cervantes

The Grove Street Elementary School ("Grove Street School"), located at 95 Grove Street in Providence, is the subject of this dispute. Constructed in 1901, it has gone unused since 1975, when it ceased operating as a school. Sadly, over the course of three decades, what was once a vibrant place for the training of bright, young minds has become an empty, deteriorated building littered with broken glass, drug paraphernalia, and debris. The parties to this dispute, having permitted the school to fall into its present state of disrepair, now look to this Court to decide its fate.

Based on testimony and evidence presented at a bench trial beginning October 29, 2007, the Court makes the following findings of fact. After closing the Grove Street School in 1975, the City retained possession of the building. By the early 1980s, numerous neighborhood residents began complaining about the Grove Street School to Joseph R. Paolino, Jr., then the City Councilman from Ward 13, where the property is located. The residents told Paolino that the building was a fire hazard and a place for "unruly activity" by youth and gangs. Transcript, Nov. 21, 2007 (Tr. IV) at 6.

By the end of 1982, the City was entertaining offers from prospective buyers. The December 6, 1982 meeting minutes of the City Council's Committee on City Property (Exhibit A) indicate the Committee's consideration of a proposal by Richard E. Tarro to purchase the Grove Street School. Tarro presented a plan to demolish the school and use the property as a parking lot for his adjoining business, a funeral home. Id. The minutes demonstrate that Tarro intended to "raze the building from his own money immediately . . . ."[1] Id. Residents of the neighborhood around the school were supportive of demolishing the building. The minutes also refer to a petition by more than 260 neighborhood residents who opposed a competing plan to purchase the former school for $12,000 and convert the school into an apartment house. Id. The committee voted to approve the sale, and on December 22, 1982, the City Council passed a resolution giving final authorization for the sale. (Exhibit B.) In a deed executed on January 19, 1983, the City conveyed the property to Richard E. Tarro and his wife, Carol Ann Tarro, for $10,000. Id. Paolino testified that a "condition" of the sale was that Richard E. Tarro would demolish the building. Tr. IV at 9. The committee asked attorneys for the City to structure the transaction so as to ensure that the property would revert to City ownership should Mr. Tarro fail to demolish the building, according to Andrew J. Annaldo, then the Chairman of the committee. Transcript, Nov. 15, 2007 (Tr. II) at 2-3. However, it appears that no written sales agreement was ever drafted. Tr. IV at 12. The deed to the property provides little insight into the terms, except to note that "said land and properties have become unsuitable and have ceased to be used for any public or municipal purposes." (Exhibit B.)

For reasons that have gone unexplored, Richard E. Tarro never demolished the Grove Street School. Initially, at least, Tarro's failure to demolish the building caused some annoyance to City officials. Paolino, who became mayor of the City in 1984, testified that he continued to receive complaints about the building and that he was bothered that Tarro had not kept his promise. Tr. IV at 11. The Committee on City Property took up the matter at a meeting on November 14, 1984. (Exhibit C.) Records from the meeting indicate that the committee sent a letter to Tarro requesting that he fulfill his commitment to demolish the building. (Exhibit C.) With still no action taken, the Committee voted to refer the matter to the City Solicitor's office to explore the City's legal options. (Exhibit C.) Annaldo testified that around that time he became aware that the requested clause requiring demolition of the school or reverter to the City had never been reduced to writing. Tr. II at 8.

Tarro remained unwilling to demolish the school, and the parties reached a stalemate. Years passed, the school's future going unresolved and its condition steadily worsening. Meanwhile, political momentum grew for preserving buildings like the Grove Street School as historic structures. On March 12, 2002, the Providence Zoning Ordinance was amended to create, among other previously-established historic districts, a new "Industrial and Commercial Buildings District." (Exhibit 2.) The ordinance placed certain industrial and commercial buildings of historic character, including the school at 95 Grove Street, within the new historic district. (Exhibit 2.) Furthermore, the ordinance empowered the Historic District Commission (HDC), which regulates development in the City's historic districts, to require that owners of properties in the new district obtain a "certificate of appropriateness" from the HDC before conducting demolitions or alterations. See Providence Zoning Ordinance § 501.4.

Jason Martin, a principal planner for the City, testified that he prepares staff reports for the HDC's monthly meetings. He stated that at the time the Industrial and Commercial Buildings District was created, he had been involved in the process of selecting buildings for the new district. At the time the Grove Street School was designated as an historic property, Martin was unaware that the City had sold the property to Richard E. Tarro with the understanding that it would be demolished. If Richard E. Tarro had wished to object to the designation of the school as historic, he never had the chance. Tarro passed away on August 30, 2001, before the district's creation. A registered letter addressed to "Richard E. Tarro," mailed after his death on September 21, 2001, gave notification of an upcoming hearing on the ordinance which would create the historic district. In 2007, this letter was found unclaimed and in the possession of the City. The letter was the only notification sent to Richard E. Tarro.


Efforts to Demolish

The Defendants Richard M. Tarro, Michael Tarro, Patricia Tarro, and the Estate of Stephen Tarro (the "Tarros") are successors in interest to Richard E. Tarro. In 2004, Stephen Tarro began an effort to demolish the school. Around September 2004, David A. Santanelli, an employee of Bilray Demolition Co. ("Bilray"), filed an application on behalf of Stephen Tarro with the Providence Department of Inspections and Standards ("Department") to demolish the Grove Street School.

When the permit was not forthcoming, Tarro sought assistance from attorney John La Terra Bellina.[2] According to La Terra Bellina, he and Tarro visited the Department to inquire about the permit. They were informed by Edgar Paxon, then the building official, that the property had been placed within the Industrial and Commercial Buildings District. Paxon told them the permit could be issued only by obtaining a certificate of appropriateness or a letter from the City Solicitor authorizing the demolition. La Terra Bellina subsequently obtained a letter from Olayinka Oredugba, Assistant City Solicitor, which authorized Paxon to approve demolition of the building. However, the October 6, 2004 letter included the caveat that the demolition must proceed in accordance with the state building code. In her trial testimony, Oredugba could not recall issuing the letter, nor could she recall any of the relevant circumstances. In fact, she only acknowledged her signature on this letter after persistent questioning by the Court.

On or about October 6, 2004, La Terra Bellina and Stephen Tarro met with Paxon again. Paxon informed them that the demolition permit could not be granted because the letter was insufficient. La Terra Bellina recalled that Tarro advised Paxon of the deteriorating condition of the Grove Street School and that trespassers frequented the property. Following the meeting, the Department never issued a demolition permit; the application remained in a gray file cabinet in Paxon's office until it was produced during the discovery phase of this litigation.

Efforts to demolish the building were placed on hold until 2007. On January 29, 2007, Jason Martin, a principal planner, received an anonymous phone call stating that work was being done to prepare the Grove Street School for demolition. He then contacted Michael Tarro, who stated that there were no immediate plans to demolish the school. After inspecting the building himself, Martin observed tracks suggesting that that material had been dragged from the building, a step typically taken in preparation for demolition. Martin reported his observations to the Department, and on January 31, a stop-work order was placed on the southwest door of the school by William Packard, a building inspector for the City, with Martin present.

On Friday, February 2, 2007, Bilray filed an application for a permit to demolish the school. The application did not contain a certificate of appropriateness from the HDC, though it was...

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