Sunday, June 29, 2008

Weird little case.

In Providence's Federal Hill neighborhood, there's a building my boyfriend and I call "Crack School," which I've now learned is actually the Grove Street School...

It's abandoned, long-term, hard-core abandoned. More than that, it's half torn down.

It turns out that the reason it's been left, for a year, half-torn down- is because the city is trying to prevent the building from being pulled down. In fact, the city wants the owner of the building to re-build the parts that have been torn down. (Registration Required).

That's not the weird part; well, it's a little weird to imagine that a city would demand that a long-abandoned building, half-rubble, be restored to its former condition- but that's Providence. That's New England city politics. Court battles are fought over minor infractions against city procedures; offenses against minor fiefdoms within the bureaucracy are never forgotten. It's not unheard of, in my town, for example, for someone to be denied a liquor license over something their father said to a city counselor fifteen years before they were born. It's not impossible that the owner of the building here outbid someone's cousin for the lot, and will thus never obtain any benefit from the fair city of providence ever again.

The weird part is the way that the owner of the building has attempted to get the permit to finish demolishing crack school. The building owner went to court for a writ of mandemus, an order which requires a public official to perform a non-discretionary function. In this case, the building owner wanted the trial court judge to issue an order requiring a building official to issue a demolition permit.

These writs are strictly common-law, older than our nation, and very rarely used. They're rarely used because in most cases, a really good argument can be made that the given public official's function IS discretionary, and therefore political, and therefore, to issue a court order requiring action would violate separation of powers.

So this is weird. And it's a desperate little move from the property owner's lawyer, and it's even weirder that the lower court judge granted the owner's request and issued the writ of mandemus- essentially ruling that even though demolition permits require assessment of many factors, and demolition permits are not an entitlement, because it's city practice to issue demolition permits in cases like these, then the function was no longer discretionary, but compulsory.

A very, very weird ruling- but, as they say, hard cases make bad law. You've got to wonder what's really going on here. And I bet the Rhode Island Supreme Court was wondering that, too...and that's why they have forced mediation on the parties. By forcing mediation, the parties may be able to agree to tear down Crack School before it gets hit by lightning again, or before anyone tries to climb around in there, and gets killed, or before anyone sues anyone for creating a public nuisance- and the Rhode Island Supreme Court is able to avoid ruling on the lower court's definition of "non-discretionary function."

More photos of Crack School/ the Grove Street School are at the Rhode Islander's flickr photostream .


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