The nearly four-year legal battle over allegations that the southern Indiana city of Charlestown used unconstitutional code enforcement tactics to force a group of neighborhood residents out of their homes has been resolved with a settlement agreement requiring the city to act “reasonably” in its enforcement of local codes.
Special Judge Jason Mount signed the agreed order Dec. 17 bringing to an end the litigation between the city and residents of Pleasant Ridge, a World War II-era neighborhood featuring lower-income housing. The agreement lays out guidelines for code enforcement and orders the city to pay $70,000 in attorney fees.
The residents filed a lawsuit in early 2017 alleging the city was trying to force them out of their homes through excessive code enforcement and fines, with the end goal of enabling developer John Neace and his company to purchase the homes for a redevelopment project. City officials, however, maintained that Pleasant Ridge was a threat to public health and safety.
Mount — a Scott County judge presiding over the Clark County litigation as special judge — granted a preliminary injunction against the city in December 2017 prohibiting the “irrational” practice of levying code violations against some, but not all, city residents. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, overturned the injunction, and the case was set for trial.
After trial dates were vacated, the parties agreed to mediation in July 2020.
“Four years ago, when things seemed darkest for the homeowners, IJ client Ellen Keith vowed that when the fight was over, she and her husband David would still be in their home and she was right,” Anthony Sanders, senior attorney with national public interest law firm Institute for Justice, said in a statement. IJ represents the resident-plaintiffs. “With this settlement and order, the city has agreed to never again use its power to levy fines to force residents out of their homes.”
The agreement lays out numerous requirements surrounding code enforcement in Charlestown.
Per the terms of the agreement, the Charlestown Board of Public Works and Safety must provide a resident with a “meaningful right of appeal” if a resident appeals an order within 10 days of receiving a notice of fines or other enforcement action. Also, if corrective action is required, the city must allow “reasonable time” for property owners to comply with a notice of violation before imposing fines.
“Reasonableness is in proportion to the scope of the corrective repairs or other actions that the City requires. The City will not issue a fine associated with a notice of violation or correction order unless the property owner willfully refuses to make the correction within a reasonable time. In no case shall a ‘reasonable time’ be fewer than 10 days after the receipt of the notice violation or correction order,” the agreement says.
If a property owner, occupant or landlord refuses to allow a property inspection, the city may obtain an inspection warrant pursuant to local ordinance. The owner, occupant or landlord cannot be penalized for refusing to consent to an inspection without a warrant.
If an inspection reveals “an immediate threat to health, life or limbs,” the city can require immediate vacation of the property or disconnection of utilities until required corrections are made. Also, if emergency/exigent circumstances are present, the city can conduct an inspection without obtaining an inspection warrant.
Fines cannot be imposed unless a resident fails to make required code corrections within a “reasonable time.” The city is required to “work in good faith with rental-property owners who strive to work in good faith with City Administration to resolve corrections as promptly and inexpensively as possible.”
Finally, “The City shall not enforce the (property-maintenance code) or any other property regulation against resident property owners of Pleasant Ridge to a greater degree than it does against owners of any other property in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood, whether that property is owned by a landlord, speculator, or developer.”
The city must pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees in two installments: $35,000 due within 30 days of the Dec. 17 order and $35,000 due within 12 months of the order.
“No one should have to go through what we’ve gone through,” Pleasant Ridge resident and case plaintiff Tina Barnes said in a statement released through IJ. “What the city did to our neighborhood wasn’t just immoral, it was unconstitutional. Thankfully, with the help of IJ, we were able to stop the city’s illegal land grab. Now, with that in our past, it is time to focus on the future and rebuild our community.”
Lawyers for the two defendants in the case — the city of Charlestown and the Charlestown Board of Public Works — did not reply to messages seeking comment on the agreement.