For more than a year, and probably much longer, the city of Bloomington has been trying to convince Joe Davis to take a more conventional approach to his South Washington Street house and yard.
But Davis describes himself as an “unconventional guy.” Parked in the backyard with building materials stacked on them are a truck, and a van with a trailer. The county’s online property lookup system has aerial imagery showing the two vehicles sitting in the backyard at least as far back as 2014.
Davis has old bathtubs arranged around the place as catchment basins, and a compost pile.
Davis describes the place as an active building site, where he’s been working to renovate the house. He bought the place in 2009 for $65,000. He has described how the house was damaged by fire before he bought it and had sat abandoned for two years.
During that period all the pipes burst because there was no heat, the wiring was stolen and homeless people were living, Davis has said.
Where Davis sees an “organic building site,” the city sees a raft of code violations.
So next Tuesday’s meeting of Bloomington’s board of public works marks the start of another chapter in the saga of attempts to enforce city code against Davis’s property. [Updated Tues., Sept. 26, 2023: Davis was notified by public works staff shortly after 8 a.m. on the day of the scheduled hearings about his property that the proceedings would be put off—until the next meeting of the board of public works, which falls on Oct. 9, 2023. The reason given was a staff illness. This is the second time the hearings have been delayed by the city.]
Bloomington’s three-member board of public works consists currently of Kyla Cox Deckard and Elizabeth Karon. As of late Friday afternoon, no replacement for the recently resigned Jennifer Lloyd had been made. It’s the mayor who appoints all three boad seats.
On Tuesday, Sept. 26, the board will be hearing two related items. One is Davis’s appeal of an Aug. 17, 2023 citation for a violation of the code’s Title 6, which says it is 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 other item on Tuesday’s agenda is a request by the staff of the city’s housing and neighborhood development (HAND) department for authorization to “abate” Davis’s property. That’s the legal term for going onto the premises and removing the items that the staff believe are in violation of the city code.
That will essentially repeat the start of the same process that began last year, in August 2022, with a notice of violation issued by the HAND department for the same kind of Title 6 garbage violation. The Aug. 11 notice of violation started a one-year timeframe to which the eventual order of abatement was tied.
A bit more than a month ago, Davis managed to run out the clock on the city’s enforcement effort—in part by filing appeals with the board of public works. Then, after the city’s abatement on his property started a few weeks ago, and some materials were hauled away by the city’s hired contractor, Davis filed an action in Monroe County circuit court. That ate up the final few days of the board’s abatement order.
Davis lost the case in front of local judge Kara Krothe, but even after her relatively quick ruling, the one-year time frame for the board’s authorization had expired. [The board’s actual order cites an incorrect duration for the order—the one-year time frame was supposed to be tied to the date of the city’s first notice of violation.]
In her order, Krothe rejected the city’s request for an extension of the board’s order beyond Aug. 11, 2023, by writing, “The Defendants asked the Court to extend the Abatement Order but provided no authority upon which the Court could do so.”
Although Davis in some sense won that round of his ongoing skirmish with the city, he has now appealed Krothe’s decision to the Indiana court of appeals.
In recent weeks, Bloomington has started two more actions against Davis that don’t directly involve the board of public works. One involves the city’s parking enforcement division, which has cited as abandoned the four vehicles that Davis parks on the street in front of his house.
The other involves the planning and transportation department’s notice of two violations of Title 20, which is the city’s zoning code. One notice of violation is for allegedly having vehicles parked in his backyard on an unimproved surface [Section 20.03.030(e)]. The other citation is for an alleged violation of a prohibition against outdoor storage. [Section 20.03.030]
The fines for the parking and storage violations are $50 per day and $2,500 a day, respectively. They escalate by doubling each day, up to a limit of $7,500 per day.
The department’s letter to Davis calculates two days worth of fines at $7,650. Davis has appealed the notices. The appeal is now set to be heard by the board of zoning appeals (BZA) on Oct. 19.
During the appeal process, the city does not allow the fines to continue to accrue. Even with a cap of $7,500 a day, the $15,000 per day (covering both violations) would add up fast. Over the course of a month, the total would start to approach a half million dollars. That’s a lot more than the total assessed value of the property, which Monroe County records show is $126,900.
The board of zoning appeals (BZA) is a five-member group, consisting of: Jo Throckmorton, Barre Klapper, Nikki Farrell, Tim Ballard, and Flavia Burrell. The Oct. 19 hearing by the BZA is set to start at 5:30 p.m. in city hall.
Davis is also currently involved in litigation over his effort to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot as an independent candidate for Bloomington mayor. He fell 14 short of the 352 signatures he had to collect in order to be listed as a choice. Lucas Rudisill is the magistrate judge out of Greene County who has been assigned the case.
In his most recent order in the case, Rudisill set the deadline for the defendants to answer Davis’s complaint as Sept. 28.