Around 9 a.m. on Wednesday, employees of an independent contractor hired by the city of Bloomington started removing “garbage” from the South Washington Street property owned by Joe Davis.
They were accompanied by staff from the city of Bloomington’s Housing and Neighborhood Development department, an assistant city attorney, and some police officers who were on civil standby.
The group of contractors and city officials were there to enforce an abatement order that had been approved on March 14 by Bloomington’s three-member board of public works.
Some of the material was removed on Wednesday morning, but by noon the abatement team had left the property with most of their work still unfinished.
Later in the day on Wednesday, Davis filed an appeal of a Tuesday court ruling that had not gone his way.
Earlier this year, Davis gathered signatures in support of an independent mayoral candidacy, but fell 14 short of qualifying for the ballot.
It’s not clear when the abatement efforts will resume.
Remaining in Davis’s backyard are some stacks of lumber, a working washing machine, a van with a trailer, and a truck with boards and other materials stacked on them, pieces from a rooftop antenna, and some pieces of scaffolding, among many other things.
At its mid-March meeting, the board of public works had upheld the notices of violation issued by the city’s HAND department. The board also granted the department’s request for the authority to go onto Davis’s property to address what the city says is a violation of a local code [BMC 6.06.020]. The code makes it unlawful to “throw, place, or scatter any garbage, recyclable materials or yard waste over or upon any premises, street, alley, either public or private,…”
The timing of Wednesday morning’s abatement activity was tied to an order issued by Monroe County circuit court judge Kara Krothe late Tuesday afternoon. In her order, Krothe granted a motion from the city to dismiss a lawsuit Davis had brought, to try to stop the city from coming onto his property.
The hearing on the city’s motion to dismiss was held last week on Thursday, Aug. 3. The hearing came after Davis won a preliminary injunction against the city, which for a while stopped the city from executing its abatement order.
At the hearing, for around 90 minutes Davis and assistant attorney Chris Wheeler went round and round on the legal questions, which boiled down to the technical and procedural issues outlined in Krothe’s order. Among other things, Krothe concluded that Davis had not filed his complaint about the notices of violation from the HAND department in a timely way—the NOVs were dated in September of 2022.
Krothe’s Tuesday order granted the city’s motion for dismissal, and vacated the preliminary injunction.
On Wednesday morning, as the contractors were removing some boards from the back of the trailer hitched to a van that is parked in the backyard, Davis shouted, “This is theft of my building materials!”
Davis takes the position that the materials that are stacked around his property are building materials and tools—needed for the kind of active construction site he is overseeing. Davis takes the position that the material is not “garbage” as the city contends.
In the city code, “garbage” is defined as “putrescible animal and vegetable wastes, resulting from handling, preparation, cooking and consumption of food; refuse; and rubbish.”
On Wednesday morning Davis was scrambling to cover some of the materials with a tarp, and to stand up some panels that he described as 100-year-old barn doors.
The city’s contention is that the boards in the piles are rotted. Some of the boards appeared in places that they might be rotted, but others did not.
The contractors pried at the panels to dismantle them so that they would fit into their trailer. As they pried, the wood made a popping sound. Davis exclaimed, “That is not the crack of rotten wood! That is the crack of sound wood going on right now!”
Davis’s property has been the site of ongoing work since 2009, when he purchased the property for $65,000.
Davis told The B Square that in 2007, two years before he bought it, the house was damaged by fire. The damage from the fire is visible on the eves of the front porch.
The blaze started when people living in the house two doors to the south fired bottle rockets onto the roof, Davis said. That’s the house where Hoagy Carmichael reportedly composed the iconic melody “Stardust.”
After the fire, the house had sat abandoned for two years. And during that time, all the pipes burst because there was no heat, Davis said. “Thieves came in and stole the wiring, and homeless people were living in there,” Davis said.
The ceiling had been pulled down when the fire was put out, he said. When he first moved in, Davis said, he had to set up a tent inside and basically live in the house as if he were camping. Davis said he has tried gradually, room-by-room, to restore the house to some kind of decent shape.
Davis told The B Square that Krothe’s Tuesday afternoon court order had arrived in his email inbox in the early morning hours of Wednesday, but he did not see it until around 9 a.m.
When he saw the order, which granted the city’s motion for dismissal of his case, Davis said he left the house to head to the circuit court to file an appeal. But he encountered the abatement team, which was already assembled, and ready to come onto his property.
Only later in the day did Davis file his hand-scrawled notice of appeal.
The notice of appeal may have been enough to buy Davis some additional time. The abatement team did not return to his property on Thursday. HAND director John Zody responded to an emailed question from The B Square about his department’s planned abatement activity by saying he would not comment on pending litigation.
The swiftness of the city’s action in response to Krothe’s order, which came just several hours after it was issued, could be explained by a potential Aug. 11 end date for the city’s abatement order.
A March 15, 2023 letter sent to Davis by public works director Adam Wason states, “The Board’s Order is continuous and shall remain in effect until August 11, 2023.” That’s exactly 150 days after the March 14 decision by the board to grant the HAND department’s request for an abatement order. It’s not clear where that 150-day time frame comes from.
But the actual abatement order gives a one-year timeframe for the abatement order, which ends on March 14, 2024.
Next up in the court case, in response to Davis’s filing of a notice of appeal, is a hearing set for Aug. 15 at 10 a.m.
Also still possibly in the works is a court filing by Davis in a different matter, involving Davis’s attempted candidacy for mayor of Bloomington as an independent candidate.
In mid-July, the election board denied his challenge over the adequacy of the petition signatures that he had submitted. But Davis told The B Square on Thursday that by next Monday he hopes to file an appeal of that election board decision.
Photos: 530 S. Washington (Aug. 9, 2023)