CHARLESTOWN — The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday that a trial court was erroneous in finding that the City of Charlestown was not in violation of the state's Unsafe Building Law when it imposed fines on homes in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood for code violations.
The ruling reverses a temporary injunction issued in December 2017 by special judge Jason Mount, which was put in place after a trial court found that while the city was not in violation of the state's Unsafe Building Law, the homeowners would likely win their other claims — that the city had illegally applied the city's property maintenance code and had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Equal Privileges and Immunities of the Indiana Constitution when imposing the fines.
The city appealed the latter three findings, while the homeowners cross-appealed the finding regarding the Unsafe Building Law. Monday's decision only addresses this portion and the judge is now expected to reassess the injunction to determine how the Indiana Unsafe Building Law affects the city's property maintenance code.
The case began in January 2017, when the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association, and other parties, filed a lawsuit seeking relief of $8,950 in fines imposed by the Charlestown Board of Public Works toward one property in the neighborhood; in February, other property owners joined the lawsuit.
Anthony Sanders, attorney for the Institute of Justice which is representing Pleasant Ridge in the case, said that the property in question accrued the nearly $9,000 in fines over September, October and November 2016, at $50 per day per violation. Some of these were things like torn screens, that owners fixed quickly, he said. Others, some foundational issues, took longer.
He said such fines were not enforced on properties purchased by developer John Neace, since they were destined to be demolished.
"But they have not waived the fines on our clients' property that they dutifully fixed up after they were told what was wrong," he said.
He said the Unsafe Building Law provides for more protections against such fines; if a property owner receives a notice, they may have 10 days to appeal to the city department in charge of violations, in this case the Charlestown Board of Works, and can be fined only if they are found to be "willfully disregarding" the order.
According to online court records of Monday's decision, "the [Unsafe Building Law] provides procedural protections for property owners who receive an order to repair or rehabilitate an unsafe building."
This includes information in an order as to the nature of the property code violations and "sufficient time of 10 to 60 days to make repairs before a fine may be imposed.
At this stage, both parties in the case say they're pleased with Monday's decision. The city of Charlestown posted on Facebook that it is "very happy with the ruling," since it reverses the order — what the city had asked for.
A news release sent Monday afternoon from the office of Mike Gillenwater, the attorney representing Charlestown, called the decision "a legal victory" for the city.
"Reversal of the Preliminary Injunction means that the city is free to continue enforcing its Property Maintenance Code and that the court-imposed limits on issuing, collecting and waiving fines are no longer in effect," it states.
"The City looks forward to continuing with the redevelopment of the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood. The reduction in crime, drug activity, animal bites and other problems that has occurred over the last year are expected to continue."
On behalf of the plaintiff — Pleasant Ridge and others — Sanders said the decision was a "major turning point in the case," he said. "Because these state procedural protections ... are going to be protecting our clients ..."
According to a news release from the Institute of Justice private developer John Neace has purchased about 200 homes in the neighborhood for $10,000 each. The goal, as stated by Neace before, is to raze the purchased buildings for new development.
"Many of these sales were made from landlords who had been fined thousands of dollars in violation of the Unsafe Building Law," the Institute of Justice release states.
The release from Gillenwater said the statement by the Institute of Justice that the city has in effect forced people out of their homes through fines, "is simply untrue."
Josh Craven, president of the Pleasant Ridge Homeowners Association which first brought the case, said he and others in the neighborhood are happy with the decision, which he said confirms what they have believed all along.
"What it means for us is just one more justification that what [the city] had been doing the whole time was unlawful and we we look forward to at a later date being able to present our case," he said.
"We're just moving on with our lives and not letting this affect us, and looking forward to improving our neighborhood over the next three to four years."