How a Massachusetts Town Seized a Farmer’s $370k Property to Cover a $60k Tax Debt—and Kept the Change

Alan DiPietro is an alpaca farmer in the town of Bolton, Massachusetts (pop: 5,376). He lives in an RV on the 34-acre property where he keeps his alpacas, and he sells their fleece to make a living.

DiPietro wasn’t always a farmer. He previously worked as a chief engineer for iRobot, a company that makes autonomous home cleaning devices such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner. He became disenchanted with the bureaucracy and red tape of the corporate world, however, so in 2008 he decided to leave that world behind and begin his alpaca-farming venture.

The years since then have not been the easiest for DiPietro. In 2014 he suffered a financially-devastating divorce that ultimately led to bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy, he still had some money in a 401(k), and he used it to buy the 34-acre property he now lives and farms on. The home he was living in was foreclosed, however, and he was evicted in 2016. It was then that he moved to the motorhome on the farm.

In the ensuing years, DiPietro found himself in a protracted legal dispute over how he could use his property. He had mowed some fields and had built some wooden fencing and small sheds, but he was later told these actions violated certain state and local environmental regulations.

As a result of various enforcement actions and lawsuits, DiPietro struggled to use his property in a profitable manner, and his financial situation became dire. He became delinquent on his property taxes in 2016, and 14 percent annual interest began accruing on his unpaid taxes.

As the years went by, the legal battle intensified and DiPietro’s situation only worsened. By 2021, he owed the town roughly $60,000 in unpaid taxes and other costs. The property value at the time was roughly $370,000, and DiPietro owned it outright.

A couple of simple solutions to his debt problem likely jump to mind. Couldn’t he just make money with the property some other way or sell part of it to pay his debt? Indeed, he could—if the town would let him. But the town stopped him at every turn. When he applied for a forestry permit to sell trees on his land, for example, the town’s conservation officials asked for it to be denied on account of his alleged environmental violations, and the department in charge of permits complied with this request.

He was also prohibited by the town from getting a guard dog and from connecting to the internet and electrical grid, and the town would not legally recognize his address. These and other restrictions undermined several potential projects. The town also refused to give him the permits he needed to sell part of his land, and the reason for the refusal was the fact that he had outstanding property tax debt.

In short, DiPietro was caught in a catch-22. He had to pay the debt to get permission to make money, but he needed money first to pay the debt.

With the debt remaining unpaid, a land court foreclosed on the property in December 2021, transferring absolute title of the land to the town as payment for the debt. The town has since initiated eviction proceedings to remove DiPietro from the property.

And what about the $310,000 in equity above and beyond the debt, the equity that rightfully belongs to DiPietro? Oh yeah. The town kept that…which it’s allowed to do under state law.

Noting the injustice, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) joined DiPietro in filing a lawsuit against the town on January 10, 2023, demanding he get back that portion of the equity which is rightfully his.

The practice of keeping the equity of a foreclosed property above and beyond the debt owed is known as home equity theft, and it’s a lot more common than you might think. Across the country, local governments and private tax lien investors regularly foreclose on properties for unpaid tax debts and then keep the whole value of the property—even though that value is often far greater than the amount of debt that was owed.

In 38 states this is illegal. Foreclosing parties are required to sell the property and return excess profits to the original homeowner. In 12 states, however—one of which is Massachusetts—local governments or private investors can take the entire value of a tax-foreclosed home.

A recent PLF report highlights how extensive this practice has become.

“In our study of 31 Massachusetts localities, representing one-third of the state’s population, the government foreclosed and sold 254 homes for tax debt from January 2014 through June 2020,” PLF writes. “Massachusetts law allowed the taking of an estimated $60 million in equity above what these homeowners owed in property tax debt. Another 154 homes were foreclosed for tax debts from January 2014 through December 2020 by a private investment company that purchased tax liens (the right to collect a tax debt) from the state. Massachusetts law allowed the taking of an estimated $37 million in equity above what these homeowners owed in property tax debt.”

DiPietro unjustly lost roughly $310,000 of equity, representing about 84 percent of his property value. This is a fairly typical case, judging by the PLF report. “In the localities we studied, homeowners lost 87% of their home equity, on average—nearly $260,000 per home,” PLF notes.

The argument in favor of this practice is that the lost equity basically amounts to a fine or penalty for tax delinquency. You broke the law, after all, and breaking the law has consequences, the reasoning goes. If a state deems that one of those consequences should be that you lose the equity in your home, so be it.

The arguments against this practice take a few different forms. For one, detractors argue that taking more value than what is owed is simply unjust. They also argue that this violates the “just compensation” clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states that if a government takes private property for public use it must compensate the property owners appropriately.

To those who would put forward the argument that this taking amounts to a fine, detractors would respond by pointing to the Eighth Amendment, which states that excessive fines shall not be imposed. Surely this is an excessive fine if ever there was one.

A final argument against this practice is the simple point that it tends to impact the most vulnerable members of society more than others. PLF comments on this sad truth in its report on Massachusetts.

“Like similar tax foreclosure schemes in other states, the Massachusetts system likely hits vulnerable people the hardest,” PLF writes. “Most people don’t intentionally fail to pay their property taxes. As with the Calkinses [another case] and many others, life happens. Homeowners get sick, experience personal financial crises, or miscalculate a late payment. Research demonstrates that the elderly, sick, and poor are especially at risk of losing their most valuable asset—their home—for unpaid property taxes.”

The nineteenth century French economist Frédéric Bastiat coined a term that aptly describes this practice: legal plunder. The law, says Bastiat, is supposed to prohibit theft, but all too often it is weaponized by governments and special interest groups to enable theft. Rather than being outlawed, plunder is legalized and legitimized.

How do we know when legal plunder is occurring? Bastiat gives us a handy diagnostic tool in his 1850 book The Law.

“But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

In a world of secure property rights, taking the entire value of a property for a much smaller debt would surely be a crime. In fact, some (including this author) would argue that property taxes as such constitute legal plunder, since they involve forcefully taking money from peaceful property owners.

Whether you agree with that or not, it should be clear that taking equity above and beyond what is owed is theft. Not only is this a grave injustice, it also harms vulnerable people and gives governments a powerful incentive to back these people into a corner, as the Bolton government did with DiPietro.

It’s long past time to end this predatory practice.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

Patrick Carroll
Patrick Carroll

Patrick Carroll has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and is an Editorial Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

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Sleep In Heavenly Peace

Marshfield community ensures no kid sleeps on the floor

Some Saturday mornings start slow and quiet, but not this one. The hum of generators and the buzz of sanders in the church parking lot is unmistakable. A big project is underway. The air is full of sawdust and the smell of fresh stain. Volunteers from all walks of life have gathered with a common goal — to build beds and meet a need for children in their community.

“When I first heard of the Sleep in Heavenly Peace (SHP) organization, I couldn’t believe this was a real thing. Were there really kids out there who needed beds?” says Alan Balmer, Marshfield SHP chapter president. The need was far greater than he realized. “We were living in Alabama at the time and a colleague of mine who volunteered had me in tears telling me story after story of kids living in really difficult situations. Some were sleeping on the ground, others on piles of clothes or mattresses on the floor.”

In 2020, Alan and his wife, Vickie, moved back home to Marshfield. He shared the idea of SHP with his pastor and soon reconnected with four other local men in his church, who caught his vision. “The five of us guys and a couple of our wives went to San Antonio to go through a two-day training process,” Alan says. “At the end of that, we knew it was something we wanted to do.”

They started their own SHP chapter in March 2021 and in July began delivering beds to foster homes and other families in need. They started out small, serving only the towns of Marshfield and Niangua. When they discovered they were able to keep up and have enough beds in inventory, they started adding a few more ZIP codes. “We now cover every ZIP code in Webster County, as well as a little of Christian, Greene and Laclede,” Alan adds.

The chapter comprises about 20 people, Alan says, but they also rely a lot on the help of local volunteers. “At our last bed build day at First Baptist Church in Marshfield, there were probably 60-plus volunteers.” It was their biggest build to date. Working as a team, they met their goal of completing 60 brand new beds. They typically meet four to five times a year to build more beds.

They set up an assembly line with tables and tools and assign people to different tasks. Volunteers sand the boards to smooth away any splinters and rough edges. From there, the lumber is carried to the drill press station. Next, the pieces are screwed together to form the headboards and bedrails and then dunked in stain.

There’s a job for everyone. Volunteers include men, women and kids. There are retirees, carpenters, building contractors, teenagers and many folks who have no previous building experience. Everyone brings different skill sets to the table. “If it were my responsibility to make sure the bed build actually happened and everything was set up and organized, it would probably never happen. I’m not even that great at building the beds,” Alan says with a laugh. “But I love going on the deliveries and talking to the people.”

During bed builds, some people drive by and apply for a bed on the spot. Others have pulled in and dropped off checks and donations.

“I came to their very second bed build day and I’ve been hooked ever since,” says Steven DeShields of Marshfield. “I’ve been to three or four build days since and they always have me doing something different.”

Sleep in heavenly peace
Images Credit: Rural Missouri magazine.

He’s also gotten to go out on deliveries with them occasionally. “When I saw how excited the kids were to see us, that’s what really made me want to get involved,” says Steven. “They’re usually bouncing off the walls in excitement. It can be hard to calm them down. It makes it really worth it to see the smiles on the kids’ faces.”

Once the beds are finished and loaded on the trailer, they’re ready for delivery. As requests for beds come in, Alan’s crew is quick to respond and schedule a time with each inquiring family. Sometimes the team delivers up to three evenings a week, always after the volunteers finish their day job.

Three or four SHP volunteers arrive at the recipients’ home with arms full of bedding and welcoming smiles. If there’s more than one child receiving a bed, they oftentimes assemble bunk beds for the siblings to share.

All the pieces from the build days are assembled in the kid’s bedroom. Each child receives a new bed frame, mattress, pillow, pillowcase, sheets and blankets. “We like to bring a few different options for the bedding, so the child can pick what they like,” Alan says.

Several quilting groups have donated quilts to them. “There is a men’s correctional facility in Licking who has donated quilts that the men have made,” says Alan. “There’s also an organization called Miracles for Margaret that donates blankets in memory of their daughter. It’s really amazing. We love giving out these comfort blankets and folding them at the end of the bed. The child may want an extra blanket, especially this time of year.”

The Marshfield chapter delivered more than 200 beds in just over a year. When word got out, people started donating. “The community has been so supportive,” Alan says, noting they’ve received grants and donations from individuals, businesses, Webster Electric Foundation, Arvest Bank, Salvation Army, TLC Student Funds and Community Foundation of the Ozarks, just to name a few. “There are several organizations who have really supported us well,” he says.

The average cost of a bed is about $250, including wood, hardware, bedding and mattress. “So many of the bed frames you buy today are made with cheap metal,” Alan adds. “Our beds are very sturdy and built to last a long time.”

To date, there are approximately a dozen Sleep in Heavenly Peace chapters in Missouri, and SHP is actively recruiting more chapters throughout the state. There are approximately 300 chapters nationwide.

“We’d love for the whole state, every city or county, to have one,” Alan says. “For those interested, the No. 1 thing I recommend is watching Mike Rowe’s ‘Returning the Favor’ interview with SHP founder Luke Mickelson. And I’d suggest having a box of Kleenex with you when you do.”

Across the country, the mission is the same. These volunteers want to ensure that no kid sleeps on the floor in their town. Joy lights up the faces of each volunteer and is mirrored in the faces of the children and families they serve. They’re building beds, but they’re also building community.

“It’s something that so many of us have taken for granted our entire lives, but the need is truly there,” Alan says. “We’re doing this because God’s been really good to us and we want to pour out those blessings on other people. I’m just grateful to be a part of it.”

This article was reprinted with permission from Rural Missouri magazine. Visit to learn more, donate, volunteer or apply for a bed. Alan can be reached at To watch the interview with Mike Rowe and Luke Michelson, visit

  Kaiser is a freelance writer from Hartville, MO.

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