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‘A false narrative’: Apex owners file new lawsuit in eminent domain fight

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The owners of the well-known Apex building in Pawtucket are trying to fend off a city effort to acquire their land through eminent domain, alleging the city has singled them out and “tried to coerce them into giving up their properties in violation of the law.”

A group of limited liability companies that own five parcels of land alongside Interstate 95 in downtown Pawtucket filed an amended complaint in Rhode Island U.S. District Court this month, accusing the city and several local officials of interfering with their property rights and business activities.

On Wednesday, the owners issued a blistering statement, painting themselves as the victims of an overzealous attempt by the city to unlawfully obtain their land through eminent domain.

“It is very unfortunate for the taxpayers of Pawtucket that it has come to this, but Apex Development was forced to file this suit after years of cooperating with the city and attempting to engage in reasonable negotiations – an effort that has only been met with harsh and unsubstantiated rhetoric from the city’s advisors,” Apex spokesperson Bill Fischer said in a statement.

City officials quickly fired back, as Pawtucket Commerce Director Jeanne Boyle — a defendant in the case — called the legal complaint “an unfortunate continuation of the property owners’ years-long effort to misinform our community through baseless accusations, stall tactics and obstructionism.”

“Moreover, their highly irregular decision to list individual civil servants, including myself, as defendants in this case simply shows they are willing to resort to personal attacks and threats in order to get their way,” Boyle added.

Court records show the amended complaint, filed April 14, is the latest development in an ongoing legal dispute between the companies and the city dating back to January 2019.

But the disagreement has heated up dramatically ever since October, when Mayor Donald Grebien announced plans to acquire the Apex land as part of the city’s effort to redevelop downtown. He claimed at the time that “years of regular, cordial and good faith negotiations for purchase have, unfortunately, been unsuccessful.”

Grebien’s announcement followed the city’s failed attempt to purchase the land to be part of the mega-development project known as Tidewater Landing, which will be anchored by a professional soccer stadium.

The Apex land is a recognizable landmark in Rhode Island thanks to its owners’ pyramid-shaped department store, built in 1969 and visible from I-95. But the land is also known for being at the center of past efforts to redevelop the downtown of the state’s fourth-largest city.

Before Tidewater Landing, the owners of the former Pawtucket Red Sox sought to build a new multimillion-dollar stadium on the Apex land. A deal was never struck and the negotiations between everyone involved failed, which ultimately helped spur the PawSox moving the team north to Worcester, Massachusetts.

In a statement, Fischer argued the Apex development team of advisers have “negotiated in good faith,” and “put fair offers on the table.”

“The city’s narrative that we have implemented ‘stall tactics and obstructionism’ simply does not hold water,” he added. “It is a false narrative that will not stand the test of time and will not stand up in the court of law.”

In the latest 69-page complaint, which demands a jury trial, Apex owners allege the city and its officials have prevented them from conducting private business on private land, causing them millions of dollars in lost investment. Among other things, the owners also argue their properties are not blighted, despite the city’s effort to suggest otherwise.

Pawtucket has not yet filed a response to the complaint, according to a review of court documents. But Boyle painted the owners as a group that consistently refuses to work in good faith with the city, which “has delayed much-needed investments in the city’s riverfront and downtown districts for far too long.”

Separately, the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency in January filed its own lawsuit against the owners, alleging they have unlawfully interfered with the city’s “statutory right to conduct environmental testing as part of its due diligence,” according to Boyle. The agency is accusing the owners of agreeing to the environmental testing, which they argue is allowable under the eminent domain law, only if the results are kept “strictly confidential.”

Boyle described the demand as “just another stall tactic and false narrative.”

“While we are disappointed by the ownership group’s choices and latest actions, we remain committed to working with them in a transparent manner in order to find a solution that serves the best interests of Pawtucket residents and taxpayers,” Boyle said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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