Parked in Joe Davis’s backyard at 530 S. Washington Street are three vehicles and a trailer that have various materials stacked on them. Stacked outside in other places in the backyard, and on Davis’s front porch, are more materials.
The city of Bloomington contends that the conditions at 530 South Washington violate two parts of city zoning code—one about parking on unimproved surfaces and another about outside storage.
The city sent Davis warnings in August of 2021 and October of 2022, which had compliance deadlines that the city considers unmet. So in mid-August of this year, the city’s planning and transportation department issued a notice of violation with fines totaling $7,650.
Davis appealed the notice of violation. But on Thursday night, Bloomington’s board of zoning appeals (BZA) upheld the notice.
Within the city’s process, that ends the options for Davis to appeal. But in the Monroe County circuit court, he could appeal the notice and the amount of the fine.
Related to the same conditions on his property, Davis is scheduled to appear next Tuesday in front of the board of public works, to appeal a notice of violation for a different part of city code, which deals with health and sanitation. The city’s housing and neighborhood development (HAND) department is also asking the board to approve a continuous abatement order.
That kind of order means the city would be able to go onto Davis’s property and take what it considers to be the necessary steps to bring it into compliance with the health and sanitation code.
In August of this year, the HAND department started to carry out an abatement order related to previous health and sanitation notices of violation, but Davis appealed the abatement order to the Monroe County circuit court. Even though the court did not grant his appeal, the clock ran out on the abatement order,
How do things currently stand with respect to the parking and outside storage issues?
According to Bloomington’s development services manager Jackie Scanlan, the fines associated with the zoning violations (parking and storage) are “active” and the final amount of the fine will be determined “once compliance is achieved.”
At Thursday’s BZA hearing, Scanlan said that the administration’s approach was to focus on compliance over fine collection. Responding to an emailed B Square question, Scanlan wrote: “If compliance is not achieved, enforcement will continue.”
One step in the city’s strategy to bring the property into a state that it considers compliant with the zoning code was worked out in a visit to Davis’s property on Nov. 2. That step was for Davis to inventory the items on his property that he considers to be related to the construction of an accessory structure in his backyard for which he has a building permit.
The idea is that Davis is using some of the materials to construct the shed, and some of the materials will be stored inside it.
The backyard meeting on Nov. 2 included three city department heads: corporation counsel Beth Cate; planning and transportation director Scott Robinson, and housing and neighborhood development (HAND) director John Zody.
Zody was there on Nov. 2 in connection with the health and sanitation notices of violation. Davis has asked for an item-by-item breakdown of what the city considers to be in violation of the health and sanitation code.
Bloomington’s city code includes in its definition of “garbage” more than just putrescible materials, because it lists “rubbish” in the definition. The term “rubbish” has its own separate definition.
“Rubbish” means non-putrescible solid wastes consisting of both combustible and noncombustible wastes, such as paper, cardboard, tin cans, wood, glass, bedding, crockery, construction debris, and similar materials.
Zody did not try to go item-by-item in the backyard, but as one example he pointed out a metal chair with a heavily worn wooden seat. If the wooden seat were to fall off, Zody said, he believed the remaining metal frame could be considered “rubbish.”
Davis protested that it was not rubbish and in support of his point sat down on the frame—with and without the wooden seat, which was lying on the frame but unattached to it.
Davis is a self-described “unconventional guy” who says he has been working to restore the South Washington Street house since 2009, when he purchased the property for $65,000. Davis has 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.
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. Davis says he has tried gradually, room-by-room, to restore the house to some kind of decent shape.
Davis considers his property to be an active construction site.
In Davis’s written materials submitted to the BZA and the board of public works are some letters of support, including one from Chris Banul, who is the manager of the Ace Pawn Shop on Walnut Street. The shop is on the next street over from Davis’s place. Banul wrote, “Over the past several years my employees and I have been watching Mr. Davis efforts to improve his home and property according to his personal taste.”
Banul continued, “Part of those efforts do require Mr. Davis to acquire various different types of building material that he stores onsite.” Banul’s letter adds, “Mr. Davis’s efforts match most of the other businesses and homeowners in the neighborhood. His vision isn’t mainstream but that is not for us or anyone to judge.”
Another letter of support came from Keith Romaine, who is a professor of art at IUPUC and Ivy Tech Community College. Romaine described Davis as “a natural builder” adding that he “is committed to reusing valuable materials.”
Romaine wrote that, “[Davis] is an innovative leader in this type of construction in our community. He is committed to environmentally sustainable living.”
The board of public works was supposed to hear Davis’s appeal of the notice of violation and the requested abatement order in the second week of October. But on that occasion Davis used more than an hour at the mic to argue about procedural matters, not yielding to the request of board president Kyla Cox Deckard to sit down. The board voted to put off the hearing, in order to attend to other items on its agenda that night.
On that occasion, from the public mic, Jami Scholl, a gardening consultant, said she knew Davis through the natural building group that was housed under the Center for Sustainable Living. Scholl called Davis “a leader and educator in natural building practices.” She added that he had spent “countless numbers of hours dedicated to serving this community.”
The city’s citation of Davis is at odds with the city’s own stated goals of supporting sustainable practices, Scholl said. Scholl attended the Nov. 2 backyard meeting in support of Davis, along with Bloomington residents Marc Haggerty, and Cathy Meyer.
The hearing on the health and sanitation notice of violation and the continuous abatement order is set for the Tuesday, Nov. 21 meeting of the board of public works, starting at 5:30 p.m.
530 S. Washington site visit (Nov. 2, 2023)