Alan DiPietro has been raising alpacas and selling their fleece since 2008 in Bolton, Massachusetts, a small, pleasant town in the state’s Nashoba Valley Region.
By 2014, Alan’s alpacas needed more land, so he bought 34 acres that spanned Bolton and the adjacent Town of Stow. The property was undeveloped, so the 50-year-old former engineer mowed some existing fields and installed natural fencing and other small structures necessary to run an alpaca farm.
What he didn’t know, however, was that the town would claim his improvements required local permits. The subsequent chain of bureaucratic misfortune, coinciding with a financially devastating divorce, cost him his property and all of his equity in it. Now, he’s fighting back.
Unbeknownst to Alan, the upgrades to his land allegedly were made too close to a wetland protected under the state’s Wetlands Protection Act (WPA) and bylaws of both Bolton and Stow. Even if he had known, he believed agricultural use of the property was exempt from local conservation rules.
Between his burgeoning alpaca farm and his divorce, Alan couldn’t afford both the mortgage on his home and the property taxes on his farm. He eventually lost his home to foreclosure, so he took up residence in an RV on his farmland.
Shortly thereafter, Bolton and Stow sued Alan for his earlier alleged environmental violations. He was charged $26,000 and ordered to restore the protected area. This punishment, combined with other financial hardships, caused him to fall behind on taxes. In 2017, the Town of Bolton initiated a “tax taking,” meaning Alan’s tax debt of $6,116 went on the books and began accruing 16% annual interest, subsequent tax bills, and administrative fees.
Alan tried everything he could think of to pay the debt and save his property, but the town stopped him at every turn. He tried to sell some of his lots—each offer that rolled in was more than double what he owed—but the town refused the necessary permits to make the land sellable. He applied for a forestry permit to sell trees on his land but was denied due to the past alleged environmental violations. He even tried growing industrial hemp, but his crops were stolen, and the town would not allow him to connect the internet and electricity services necessary for a security system.
The tax debt continued to pile up. When the land court foreclosed on his property in December 2021, Alan’s total debt had grown to roughly $60,000. Because the property’s market value is at least $370,000, and Massachusetts law allows local governments to take property and keep the equity, the town was able to take a windfall of more than $310,000, robbing Alan of one of his last remaining valuable possessions.
A home’s equity is just as much property as a home itself. It cannot be taken by government without just compensation. Represented at no charge by Pacific Legal Foundation, with the assistance of attorneys at PioneerLegal, LLC, Alan is fighting back with a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s home equity theft system that preys on its most vulnerable members.
Alan is not alone. Pacific Legal Foundation’s research has revealed property owners subjected to tax foreclosure lose 87% of their equity on average in Massachusetts. In just one year, municipalities—and in many cases, private investors—stole more than $56 million in property equity from residents statewide.
Nor is Massachusetts unique. A PLF study of all states with similar predatory laws found more than $777 million in life savings was lost to government-sanctioned property theft. PLF’s work to defeat home equity theft continues in Massachusetts and wherever else the government collects windfalls at the expense of property owners.