Score one for the little guy.
In a modern, Philadelphia-esque version of David vs. Goliath, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of a Fishtown man who had spent more than two decades cleaning up a vacant city-owned lot — until Philadelphia officials said they wanted it back.
Since Frank Galdo purchased a home in Fishtown in 1989, he and, later, his family spent years cleaning up an abandoned field that sprawled across the 1100 block of Front Street. The nearly 20,000-square-foot property — located across from Galdo’s house — had been a frequent site for crime, drug use, and short-dumpers. So, he plopped down a pavilion, a tree house, and benches to help spruce up the lot.
For years, residents parked on the concrete slabs that Galdo poured, and kids played on the lot’s well-groomed grass. Market-Frankford Line trains zoomed by his large “The Notorious Galdo Parcel” sign perched on the site.
Yet there was just one problem with Galdo’s plan: He never actually owned the parcel.
And in 2013, the City of Philadelphia said it wanted it back.
Property records show that the lot has been owned by the city since 1974, when City Council authorized the condemnation of Fishtown parcels so the Market-Frankford Line could be diverted and I-95 could be built. According to records of a City Council meeting at the time, the idea was that the land could be sold once construction finished.
Instead, the parcel sat, largely untouched, until Galdo arrived and began improving it — through work that a court record noted was done without permits. The city nearly sold it in 2008 to a developer, court records show, but nothing materialized. So when Philadelphia in 2013 told Galdo to clear the parcel, he argued that it was no longer the city’s to take.
Galdo claimed that he was entitled to the land because of “adverse possession” — a legal doctrine that allows someone who doesn’t own a property to still claim it by proving visible, continuous possession for 21 years. According to Galdo, he had, at the time, maintained the property for nearly 25 years. The city, in contrast, said that because it had acted on behalf of the commonwealth to aid I-95′s construction, it was therefore protected by the immunity that shelters the state from adverse possession claims.
In 2016, a trial court ruled in the city’s favor, stating that the city was, indeed, protected by the state’s immunity and that the parcel was devoted to “public use” because it was taken through eminent domain.
Two years later, a state appeals court remanded the case to the lower court for trial, finding instead that the city does not receive immunity from the state because its relationship on the matter ended in the late 1970s, when the construction project was completed. The Commonwealth Court also found that there was no public use on the site.
In an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the city argued that there were reasons for holding off on the sale of the Front Street lot after I-95 was constructed, citing, among other justifications, the opportunity to sell at a time when profits would be high. The city also argued that the length of time that a property is left idle should not negate its immunity from adverse possession claims. The property should be considered in “public use” until it is sold, the city said.
In a decision posted Thursday by the Supreme Court, an opinion written by Justice Max Baer affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s order, thereby vacating the trial court’s decision and remanding it to first-level court for further proceedings on Galdo’s adverse possession claim.
“A municipality’s holding of abandoned property, here for decades, offers no benefit to the public,” Baer wrote in his decision. “The public is not occupying the property in any way, no tax dollars are being received from the property, and the neighborhoods in which the dormant properties are located risk the threat of becoming blighted.”
Baer continued: “We hold that, generally, [municipalities] in this Commonwealth may be subject to claims of adverse possession.”
Still, the court stated, there remains a “high burden” that people claiming adverse possession must satisfy to obtain title. To prevent such claims, the court said, a city must intervene before the 21-year deadline that must lapse before adverse possession can begin. Such “limited responsibility” to monitor city properties, the court continued, “will promote the goals of municipal efficiency and the active and efficient use of the land.”
Baer’s decision was joined by six other justices.
In a statement, city spokesperson Mike Dunn said the city is “grateful for the clarity from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court” and is "evaluating next steps as there may be further proceedings in the trial court.”
Galdo’s lawyer, David Scaggs, said Galdo was “thrilled” by Thursday’s decision but declined to comment further because of future trial court proceedings.
While the final outcome of the case may be determined by the trial court, Thursday’s decision by Pennsylvania’s highest court could perhaps give the city incentive, as the court suggested, to better monitor vacant property. Philadelphia has an estimated 40,000 vacant lots, about three-quarters of which are owned by private residents.
The case between Galdo and the city is not the first time that Philadelphia has clashed with residents over a vacant city-owned lot that was later cleaned up. More than seven years ago, real estate developer Ori Feibush spruced up an abandoned parcel in Point Breeze that the Philadelphia Daily News in 2012 reported as being in “deplorable shape,” according to neighbors. The city said Feibush’s efforts constituted trespassing because the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the land’s owner, does not “permit unauthorized access to or alteration of its property.”
Ultimately, the city opted to lease the lot to Feibush. Today, it remains a garden.