SALEM — The state's Superior Court has ruled that a Federal Street property owner can turn his first-floor unit into a residence, ending a nearly five-year appeal in the case.
In a decision issued Feb. 5, Superior Court Judge Janice Howe said Richard Jagolta's plans to convert the first floor of 107 Federal St., approved by the city's Zoning Board in 2016, can move forward.
The three-story Victorian building has housed two residential units and a first-floor commercial space for decades. There was a grocery store on the first floor until 1995, at which point it became a florist shop. In 2005, the space was used as a design studio and art gallery. In 2014, the board approved a real estate consulting office to operate on the first floor. But the neighborhood, represented by local attorney and River Street resident John Carr, appealed the decision, arguing that the space's commercial use expired through several years of inactivity.
That case was settled out of court. Soon after, Jagolta bought the unit for $107,000 with plans to turn it into a residence. He said at the time that he felt the neighborhood's successful fight against the business use meant they'd support the first floor becoming residential. But neighbors appealed the board's decision, citing concerns over traffic and parking.
That appeal ended Feb. 5, when Howe wrote the board's original decision was solid.
"In a world where zoning litigation more often challenges decisions approving commercial uses impinging on residential uses, the plaintiffs' challenge of a decision that seeks to convert the sole commercial use in an otherwise residential use is, to say the least, unusual," Howe wrote, adding that it's "certainly" reasonable to assume Jagolta's conversion to a residential use would draw less visitors than a business in the same space. "Indeed, all but one of the plaintiffs testified that elimination of the commercial parking space in front of 107 Federal St. would be a benefit to the neighborhood."
The decision also supported a past claim, backed by the Historical Commission, that Jagolta's plans would improve the historic look of the building.
The property's "current condition makes it stick out from the many other well-maintained historic buildings in the neighborhood," Howe wrote. "It is clear that the subject property has fallen into some disrepair in recent years, and Jagolta's proposed renovations to the exterior of 107 Federal St. promise to restore the building's historic character. Both the Salem Historical Commission and the plaintiffs welcome these renovations and agree that they would be more architecturally correct than the building's current condition."
Carr said another appeal is coming. He declined to speak further, saying instead that his priority is to wage his clients' cases in court as opposed to in print.
Jagolta, meanwhile, said he's eager to move forward.
"It took 4 1/2 years and cost $50,000, so I lost regardless," Jagolta said. "I really don't understand why they were fighting this to begin with, because it seems to me that if what I had there was a residential unit and we were looking to convert it to commercial, they certainly would've opposed that."
Jagolta further said zoning law "was clearly on my side to begin with, so I never really had much doubt that we'd prevail."
"They didn't really seem to have a lot in terms of valid arguments," Jagolta said. "It struck me as more a case of bullying than anything else."
Jagolta said he didn't understand why the plaintiffs would appeal.
"I can't see how, even if they won, then... if you look at what they were looking for if they were successful, this unit would have no legal use whatsoever," Jagolta said. "I don't understand how a perennially vacant, unusable unit is an improvement on the neighborhood versus a residential unit and building that was properly maintained.
"I'd hope they would at this point just call it a day and move on," Jagolta concluded, "and let me move on with improvements to the building."