Three years ago, Larry Goins and his wife, Mattie, wanted to buy the vacant city-owned lot next to their Lemon Street home in the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood.
But when they went to City Hall, the Goinses said they were told the lot was in a development area, so they would have to check with the Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church and head of the church’s development agencies.
They were told Chapman wasn’t interested in the lot, Goins said. When the Goins reported back to City Hall, the city’s real estate office then offered to sell the Goinses the land – but for $10,000, he said.
“I am not going to pay $10,000,” Goins said.
A Mulberry Street homeowner said he had a similar experience a few years earlier, in 2006.
“I went downtown to get the lot and they said this was an area under development, and they told me I had to write a letter to Rev. Chapman,” said the homeowner, who did not want his name used for fear of retribution.
“I wrote it, and Chapman never responded,” the homeowner said.
For a number of recent years, Fruit Belt residents say, trying to buy a vacant city-owned lot in their neighborhood has required an extra step – getting Chapman’s permission.
“Anyone who wants a lot next to their house or across the street, they have to write a letter to the Fruit Belt Coalition, and if it’s not a property that’s being used for the townhomes, then we tell the city to go ahead and give it to them,” Chapman told The Buffalo News recently. He said the process only affects residents, not developers.
The process ensured that the city didn’t accidentally sell any properties needed for the housing St. John is building in the Fruit Belt, Chapman said. Any requests for lots not needed were approved, he said.
But residents say the process was sometimes flawed and cumbersome, making it difficult for them to purchase lots to add a driveway or more green space next to their homes.
Chapman said he didn’t recall when the policy went into effect, or who in City Hall helped set up the procedure. He said it was an unofficial arrangement, with nothing signed.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said he was not aware that Chapman’s organization was signing off on resident requests to buy lots. Neither was former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, who left office the end of 2005. Timothy Wanamaker, who headed up the city Office of Strategic Planning for Masiello and Brown for a while as well, could not be reached to comment. Strategic Planning oversees the city’s real estate office. Brendan Mehaffy, who has headed Strategic Planning since 2010, said he also was unaware of the procedure. He added that Chapman now has all the lots needed for his rental housing projects, so the process is no longer necessary. Chapman agreed.
“If somebody wants to buy a piece of property in the Fruit Belt owned by the City of Buffalo, they should come to the Division of Real Estate and we’ll work through it,” Mehaffy said.
As for the price, that’s based on appraisals determined by comparable sales in the area, as required by the City Charter, he said.
– By Deidre Williams, Jonathan D. Epstein and Susan Schulman