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Despite 10 years of unpaid taxes, Manchester won't take troublesome lot

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 19. 2017 8:46PM
Trailers with tanks of liquid waste and 55-gallon drums, above, and abandoned boats and cars are among the items behind a chained fence at 123 Cleveland St. in Manchester. Citing contamination, the city has decided not to take possession of the property for non-payment of taxes. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — It’s a given when it comes to living in any city: you skip out on paying your taxes long enough, you lose your property.

Unless you’re Matthew Skwozinski.

On Tuesday, Manchester aldermen took the unusual step of not taking possession of the property that Skwozinski owns on the West Side at the corner of Cleveland and Third streets.

That’s despite 10 years of unpaid taxes and thousands of dollars in unpaid bills he owes after the city removed old cars, machinery, oil drums, tires and other junk from the property in 2008.

A tax lien of $267,000 has already been attached to the property, and that represents only five years of back taxes, according to city records.

But at this point, the city said it is too concerned about arsenic and ash-related contamination of the property to issue a tax deed and take possession of the property. If it did so, the city might be forced to clean it up, said Alderman Pat Long, chairman of the city’s Land and Buildings Committee.

“I don’t want the city to be liable for what would be a million, a half-million dollars. Why should the city do that?” Long said. “It’s still his.”

The decision is the latest of a decades-long struggle the city has had with Skwozinski, who has been fined and jailed in the past over the property.

Skwozinski’s former lawyer, Charles Russell of Concord, said Skwozinski is 65 and living on Social Security. A diabetic, Skwozinski recently had one of his lower legs amputated, the lawyer said.

In the 2000s, news reports described the junk on the property — unregistered cars, oil drums, kitchen equipment, machinery, fuel storage tanks, pallets and other material that was spilling onto the sidewalk.

Nowadays, a 12-foot chain link fence surrounds the property. Much of the lot is empty. Four boats sit on trailers; the hull of one boat is stacked with bald tires. There’s an SUV missing a few wheels, also on a trailer. Other trailers hold about a dozen oil drums and containers of what look to be dark, sludge-like liquid.

Abandoned boats and cars are among the rest at 123 Cleveland Street in Manchester on Wednesday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

“It’d be nice to look out of my windows and not see this,” said Karen Christopher, who lives in an apartment building on Second Street. Christopher said the contamination concerns her.

Testing in 2014 detected no volatile organic compounds or petroleum hydrocarbons in the soil. Arsenic was the only metal found at concentrations (16 parts per million or ppm) above acceptable standards (11 ppm). Some ash-related hydrocarbons were also found at high levels.

In September 2015, the state Department of Environmental Services told Skwozinski to have the groundwater tested. He has yet to do so.

Joyce Bledsoe, the DES official overseeing the case, said not much can be done without the groundwater test. If the city takes ownership of the property, it would be eligible for grants to pay for the testing, she said.

“Nothing is simple and things can take a lot of time,” Bledsoe said. The DES has labeled it a low-risk site, she said.

Russell calls the DES a “nervous Nellie” when it comes to the contamination, and said the demand for a groundwater test makes it difficult to sell the property.

Two potential buyers surfaced over the past five years, Russell said, but the city needs to do a reality check and forgive some of the back taxes. “Is there any incentive to sell it if all the money goes to the city?” he asked.

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