Group sues Charlestown, alleges land grab

Madeleine Winer, Courier-Journal

The Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association has filed a lawsuit against Charlestown, alleging the Southern Indiana city acted "illegally" and "unconstitutionally" in fining it over a rental property it owns. 

Josh Craven, the president of the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood neighborhood association, in Charlestown, sits on his porch at 203 Guilford Road underneath a sign calling on the city to save their neighborhood by stopping what the neighborhood calls eminent domain abuse.
11 January 2017

The lawsuit says that the $8,950 in fines, which it called "excessive," was an effort to force the association to sell the property to a private developer.

The association also alleges in the suit that the fine is part of the city's bigger plan to demolish homes in the decades-old neighborhood and force residents to leave and to build new homes for "a new class of owners."

Charlestown Mayor Bob Hall, who is also president of the Board of Public Works and Safety, and Building Commissioner Tony Jackson declined to comment. The city's lawyer, Michael Gillenwater, was out of the office Thursday and did not immediately respond to calls requesting comment. 

The suit, filed by Jeffersonville lawyer Stephen Voelker on behalf of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, asks the court to overturn the fine and declare it illegal. It also asks the court to prohibit the city from applying other "unconstitutional" laws or policies against the association.

“We fixed everything. We cooperated with the system, and we still fixed it,” Josh Craven, president of the Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association, said in an interview with the Courier-Journal. “We did every single thing they asked us to do.”

►PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Charlestown lays out plan for Pleasant Ridge

The fines are a result of a rental inspection ordinance passed last year that gave the Charlestown building commissioner’s office power to inspect any rental property that's "at risk” on both the inside and outside. That included properties at least 65 years old, originally constructed without footers or a foundation and with asbestos or other building materials deemed to be hazardous to human health, according to a city ordinance. Many of the homes in Pleasant Ridge fit that description.

The lawsuit says the ordinance and other city laws bolstered the city’s enforcement of its property maintenance code. A property could be inspected based on complaints, "conditions observed" or other information received about it. For each violation, landlords could receive a fine of $50 to $1,500 per day, the ordinance says.

Last September, the association was notified of 11 violations at its rental duplex and was given $600 in fines over concerns about its foundation, vents and HVAC system. Jackson gave the association 10 days to repair the violations.

The association corrected the problems and appealed the fines before the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety, the lawsuit says. The board is also named in the lawsuit.

After multiple meetings before the board and paying $2,100 in fines, the board decided to table the appeal, and withhold fines, at the suggestion of Gillenwater, the lawsuit says. 

The lawsuit says the board then passed a "sinister" resolution saying that city entities do not have to waive fines on Pleasant Ridge property owners after code violations are corrected. 

That resolution was passed Dec. 8. It states that fines should only be waived once a house in Pleasant Ridge is “removed.”

Jeff Rowes, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm, said the public works board imposed the full amount of the fines over the association's duplex on Jan. 2. 

“This is part of a kaleidoscope of illegality,” Rowes said of the city’s actions in Pleasant Ridge.

The suit states that the fines are part of a series of city laws and initiatives to demolish the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood.

In 2016, the city passed approximately 10 other laws geared toward the redevelopment of Pleasant Ridge. 

According to property records, many landlords in the neighborhood have sold their rental properties for $10,000 to Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment LLC, a company created by New Albany-based Neace Ventures, which lists John Hampton as its manager. Neace Ventures is owned by John Neace, the chairman of the Louisville City FC soccer team. 

Hampton had bought 150 properties in Pleasant Ridge as of Jan. 10, county property records show.  About 10 landlords have sold their properties to the company, according to a letter Hampton sent to the board last October.

According to the letter, the development company has absorbed the fines on the properties and plans to raze or remove them.

Rowes said the city has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

►PREVIOUS COVERAGE: New company looking to buy Pleasant Ridge lots

Madeleine Winer is the Southern Indiana communities reporter for the Courier-Journal. Contact her at 502-582-4087 or