CHARLESTOWN — Recent motions in a civil lawsuit between the City of Charlestown and the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association could signal significant movement in the case, but attorneys say it isn't over yet.
On June 17, a joint motion was filed in Clark County by the City of Charlestown and its board of public works, and the Charlestown Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association and several property owners. It states that the city would declare the $8,950 in fines accrued at one duplex owned by the neighborhood association "unenforceable," and that the association would dismiss seven of its complaints against the defendants.
The plaintiffs also have filed a motion requesting summary judgment from special Judge Jason Mount.
"We've recently filed papers with the court arguing that our case is so strong that the court should rule in our favor without even having a trial," Jeffrey Redfern, attorney with the Institute for Justice representing the Pleasant Ridge homeowners, said in a recent video posted on social media.
Charlestown City Attorney Mike Gillenwater said he said he doesn't believe the plaintiffs' request for summary judgment will be met with much success in court.
"This motion is based on emotion and a bunch of unfounded conclusions," Gillenwater said. "The response talks about the law. They are imputing motives based on their interpretation of facts."
The case was filed in January 2017, when the neighborhood association, which owns a duplex there, alleged the city had unfairly imposed property code violation fines on the organization. Further, the association alleged the fines were not dismissed even after the violations were remedied while developer Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, LLC, had its fines waived on properties it had purchased in the neighborhood with the intention of demolishing them.
Court records show the plaintiffs allege that the city's motivation was to try to force homeowners and owner/landlords out of the 350-structure neighborhood, so that higher-end development could be built in its place. Plaintiffs have alleged that this was done by enforcing the property maintenance code in a way that caused fines to start accumulating from the day of any citation, with no grace period.
Many of the homes sold to the developer have been rental properties whose owners received $10,000 for each property in exchange for not having to pay the associated fines.
"Defendants have favored one person over other persons simply because it wants one kind of people out of a neighborhood and another kind to build where the first group's homes once stood," according to the plaintiff's memo in support of summary judgment filed June 24.
Attorney Steven Voelker, representing the neighborhood association, said Tuesday that even if the judge accepts the joint motion, which includes the dropped fines for the single duplex and the dismissal of several of charges, other issues will remain in litigation.
"The other issues that are still there are that they are taking the property without paying for it in the way that the law would require for eminent domain," Voelker said, speaking about the properties the developer has purchased for $10,000 apiece. "They're forcing the people to sell for $10,000 when many of the properties have value over that."
In a response to the request for summary judgment filed Monday, the city refutes many of the complaints made by the plaintiffs, stating, in part that they cannot meet the burden for summary judgment.
"...The city's enforcement of the code is supported by the strong public interest in ensuring safe housing," it reads, in part. "The City found hundreds of violations in Pleasant Ridge homes. There is no dispute that these violations exist. At least one has no toilet. The City obviously has an interest in enforcing these conditions."
Although the judge has yet to sign the order approving the joint motion, Charlestown City Attorney Mike Gillenwater said he is confident it will be approved. However, he said the case is about much more than the nearly $9,000 in fines, and that enforcing the code violations neighborhood-wide was a way to improve a blighted and unsafe area.
"This is about eliminating substandard housing, and crime, and dog bites," Gillenwater said, adding that 10 of the city's 11 most recent fires have been in Pleasant Ridge. This, he said, is due to the older and unsafe wiring in some of the homes. The neighborhood was build in the early 1940s as temporary housing for workers of the nearby army ammunition plant.
He said part of the city's decision to agree to drop the $8,950 in fines is because it was not going to fight an issue it likely wouldn't win. In fall, the city opted out of the state's Unsafe Building Law after an appellate judge ruled the city could not operate with both that and the local property maintenance code. Thus, the property maintenance code had been in violation of the Unsafe Building Law.
With the city now having opted out of the state law, Gillenwater said he has submitted a revised property maintenance code to the state for approval. But that doesn't mean enforcement of code violations isn't possible. The city has local ordinances dealing with issues such as tall grass to keep property owners accountable.
Josh Craven, president of the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association, said he understands that the case is a long process, and added that the joint motion, including dismissal of the fines, is just one part of it.
"The city ultimately knows at the end of the day that what they [did] to us is wrong and they shouldn't have done it," Craven said. "The way they handled this is not right, and I think at this point they're just trying to save face as much as possible."
OPTIONS FOR HOMEOWNERS
Gillenwater said the city has helped some of the previous renters relocate, either through pathways to home ownership or getting them prioritized in the Charlestown Housing Authority.
He said homeowner/occupiers who had lived in the neighborhood for at least two years have been eligible to buy houses in the recently built Springville Manor neighborhood for $65,000, with $20,000 of the mortgage forgivable in three years. Although he says the homes sell at market rate for $105,000, few of the Pleasant Ridge owners have taken the option.
Gillenwater said he understands that some homeowners may not want to leave the neighborhood, but it's not the same place it was in recent years. He estimated that two to three years ago, of the roughly 350 properties in the neighborhood, about 75 percent were rental.
John Hampton, a representative of Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, said that as of Wednesday, the company had purchased 216 of the properties. Of these, about 75 percent have been demolished.
"The neighborhood that they said they wanted to save, it doesn't exist anymore," Gillenwater said.
A hearing for summary judgment is set for 2 p.m. Sept. 6 in Clark County Circuit Court No. 2.
An earlier version of this story misattributed the final quotation. The error has been corrected.