A Massachusetts alpaca farmer fights government theft

DiPietro smiling with alpacas

It’s not often you come across a person who leaves behind a well-respected corporate job in engineering to become an alpaca farmer in rural Massachusetts.

But there is nothing typical about Alan DiPietro.

It isn’t just his impressive beard or his love for alpacas that makes Alan unique. What sets Alan apart from the rest is his willingness to fight for what is right, no matter how long and winding the road may be.

He had no idea when he left his old job that his commitment to first principles would result in a legal battle against his hometown.

DiPietro smiling near ladder

From robots to alpacas

Alan’s career in the world of robotics took him far away from the rural Town of Bolton, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised.

After high school, he went off to college and built a successful career working as an engineer for the iRobot Corporation. On paper, he was a textbook example of a small-town success story. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something missing in his life.

He had grown disillusioned and unfulfilled by city life, corporate bureaucracy, and the politics of working for a government contractor. Unafraid of challenge, he took a leap and started a new life as an alpaca farmer.

Alan had no regrets. Even without the salary or status of a corporate job, he was happy. “I like the outdoors, which is why I do the farming,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in the office anymore.”

He started small, buying one male and two female alpacas to live on his one-acre field.

He was a natural. His success as a breeder outgrew his property. He needed more land and found the perfect property in Bolton that fit the bill.

DiPietro feeding alpaca

Around this time, Alan hit a bump in the road personally and financially. He and his wife divorced, which led to bankruptcy. Finding himself in a financial bind, but unwilling to abandon his alpaca dream, he cashed out the savings in his 401(k) and bought a new property.

The new land wasn’t just about the alpacas. His parents were getting older, and he wanted to build a home where they could live nearby.

At the time, the home Alan lived in wasn’t on the same property as the alpaca farm. But as his financial burdens continued, his house was foreclosed, and he had to move into a motor home on the farm.

Even with these obstacles, Alan’s alpaca venture was on an upward trajectory.

The alpaca business isn’t a big moneymaker. The primary means of turning a profit was to sell wool, yarn, and clothing. With each successive step, he would think: “Well, I haven’t hit a roadblock yet, so I’d better keep going.”

He had no idea that he was about to come face to face with a seemingly insurmountable roadblock.

For his new property to be suitable for alpacas, Alan erected natural wooden fencing, gates, and other small structures. He also mowed existing fields to allow the herd to graze. That’s when the trouble began.

The Bolton Conservation Commission, responsible for enforcing state and local environmental laws, targeted the town’s newest subsistence farmer.

The commission alleged that Alan’s work posed environmental risks to a protected wetland. They demanded that he go through a complicated permitting process or undo all of his work.

For Alan, who became a farmer to liberate himself from corporate bureaucracy, this development was “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”

Alan wasn’t some giant factory farmer dumping toxic waste in the water. He was a simple farmer trying to create a habitable environment for his alpacas. The injustice of being made to feel like he was doing something harmful to the environment stung.

“Everybody loves the environment, and they all want to save the environment. But. unfortunately, people who sit in their little offices and never go outside don’t really know much about the environment. You can read whatever you want from Greta Thunberg, but I’m doing the right thing for the environment. I’m farming. I’m a subsistence farmer. I don’t have any electricity. I use very little fossil fuels. I’m on solar power. I mean, it’s utterly ridiculous.”

The commission didn’t care. They issued numerous tickets and fines. As the costs piled up, Alan fell behind on his 2016 property taxes.

Farming wasn’t enough to keep Alan financially afloat. With a heavy heart, he decided to sell part of the property. But all potential buyers needed authorization for residential construction, which required the Conservation Commission’s permission, a burden no one wanted to deal with.

It turns out that the commission picked the worst possible time to wage its war on Alan. Small streams run on Alan’s property after high rainfall, and the commission presumed that the streams were perennial, meaning strong restrictions would negate the property’s residential value. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs declared a drought watch for Central Massachusetts, stopping Alan from proving the streams were actually intermittent and subject to weaker protections. This stalled Alan’s attempts to pay his back taxes for over a year.

Bolton piled on. During the drought watch, the town sued Alan for alleged environmental violations. He was served papers, which came in the form of a government representative taping documents on his mailbox. Then, without telling him, the town halted all mail delivery to Alan’s property. The town justified the mail stoppage on the grounds that Alan did not have any legal home, structures, or business on the property—a requirement Alan couldn’t meet because of the drought watch.

Alan filed a motion to dismiss, which the court denied—but Alan didn’t know it was denied, because he wasn’t receiving mail. He also had no idea the court had scheduled a hearing date. When the date came, Alan wasn’t there, and the lawsuit proceeded without him. He received a nearly $40,000 default judgment.

But the town was just getting started.

“You’re not allowed to pay taxes, because you owe taxes”

Before Alan even received the default judgment, he’d already begun to lose his property: Bolton issued a tax taking of Alan’s property over his $6,000 property tax debt.

When the drought watch ended, Alan proved to Bolton’s Conservation Commission that his property’s streams were intermittent, not perennial. But when Alan requested residential construction authorization, the commission invoked a town bylaw that allowed (but did not require) permits to be withheld due to an applicant’s tax delinquency. The commission knew Alan needed the permit before he could sell but withheld it anyway. In effect, Bolton blocked Alan from paying his taxes because he owed taxes.

“If the town wants their tax money, let me give it to them,” Alan says. “I’ve been trying for about eight years now to pay them. But every time I try to pay them, they say, ‘You can’t pay us because you owe us.’ I mean, it’s just ridiculous. Beyond belief.”

“They try to tell me I’m in contempt of the [environmental] court order. But… they wouldn’t issue the permits necessary to resolve the problem. I mean, I don’t know how they get away with taking me into court, getting a court order, demanding that I comply with it, and then preventing me from complying with it.”

This debacle has left Alan in dire financial straits with nowhere left to go. After blocking Alan’s ability to pay his taxes, the town sued him again and obtained a court order foreclosing his ability to redeem his taxes, effectively transferring full ownership to the town. After this, the town once again filed suit and received another court order authorizing Alan’s eviction from the land.

His only chance to receive compensation for his property’s value is to fight back in court, where Pacific Legal Foundation will be fighting by his side.

Recapturing spirit of Central Massachusetts

Going up against a government hellbent on getting their way isn’t something any average person would take on. But again, Alan isn’t your average person.

Alan has the spirit of justice in his heart. Growing up in an area so rich with American history has shaped who he is. His ancestors were some of the first settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony back in the late 1660s.

He has a passion for American colonial history and even participates in Revolutionary War reenactments. With his lineage so deeply rooted in the American Revolution, he has a great reverence for the principles that once led great men to mutually pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to fight for independence. Among those principles is the belief that a person should stand up when a government deprives an individual of their liberties.

Yet, while he has always been wary of government abuse, he never thought he would personally have to deal with corruption of this magnitude.

The government is allowed to take property to satisfy a debt, but it can’t take any more than is owed.

The Fifth Amendment’s “Takings Clause” says that the government must give “just compensation” if they decide to take a person’s property.

Alan’s property was valued at $370,00. His tax bill was $60,000 with interest and fees. Basic math and common sense say the government should have returned approximately $310,000 to Alan after settling his debt. If you owe me $10 dollars, I am not entitled to grab your wallet, take out a $100 bill, and keep the change. That would be absurd. Yet, this is exactly what the Town of Bolton is doing via home equity theft.

As stressful as this ordeal has been, Alan is thankful to have found Pacific Legal Foundation.

“I had been looking for anyone who would help,” Alan says. “Every state agency, every sort of nonprofit help, every place. I did everything. I did absolutely everything, and no one would help me. They’re too busy. They got bigger fish to fry. I wasn’t the poster child they were looking for, so no one would help me.”

Alan not only wants just compensation for his land, but he also hopes that by winning his case, he can protect future property owners from home equity theft. He said that winning this case is “For the next guy that is fighting. That’s why I’m doing it… I want to make sure that they change this law.”