Judge Shuts Down Charlestown Land Grab, Grants Preliminary Injunction to Pleasant Ridge Residents

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 4, 2017

CHARLESTOWN,IND.—Today, Indiana Judge Jason Mount ruled that the city of Charlestown’s illegal land grab in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood is likely unconstitutional. Judge Mount granted Pleasant Ridge homeowners’ Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, which immediately stops the city’s use of unconscionably high housing code fines to compel property owners to sell to a private developer, Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, LLC, controlled by businessman John Neace.

“Today’s ruling unmasks the City of Charlestown’s and developer John Neace’s actions for what they are: a naked land grab, taking from the poor to give to the rich,” said Anthony Sanders, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents dozens of individual homeowners along with the Charlestown Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association. “With this injunction in place, the city either must force Mr. Neace’s company to pay several million dollars in fines or waive the fines it has illegally and unconstitutionally issued against the residents of Pleasant Ridge.”

In his ruling, Judge Mount repeatedly stated the city has acted irrationally in fining Pleasant Ridge property owners. He stated that by not enforcing the fines against homes purchased by the private developer, the city unconstitutionally gave Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, LLC, preferential treatment.  He wrote that the city gave “a free pass to the developer, who has continued to rent out properties with acknowledged” code violations. He also ruled “Plaintiffs are providing safe housing that endangers neither tenants nor neighbors, and Plaintiffs should be treated at least as well under the law as the developer who is providing unsafe housing.”

Judge Mount wrote: “The city cannot rationally penalize Plaintiff Association (or any other Pleasant Ridge property owner) for having maintained unsafe conditions in Pleasant Ridge while simultaneously waiving fines for a property owner like PRR… unless it also waives the fines for other property owners who the city has penalized for maintaining unsafe conditions.”

After finding that there was no legitimate basis for the City’s actions, the judge stated that he was “left with the more obvious illegitimate purpose” of compelling “people to sell their properties to a private developer.” The judge noted Indiana’s protections against eminent domain abuse and that the City was ignoring them:

If there were any doubt about the illegitimacy of the City’s efforts to compel property transfers to a private developer, Indiana’s eminent-domain reform settle the matter in the favor of the Plaintiffs. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court held, in Kelo v. City of New London, that the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution permits government to take private property for the mere purpose of promoting economic development. Less than a year later, Indiana enacted a comprehensive reform statute rejecting the Kelo decision as a matter of state law. The statute prohibits the transfer of property seized by eminent domain to other private parties except under narrow and enumerated circumstances. Under the new law, the fact that property happens to be located in “an area needing redevelopment” is not a justification for transferring it to another private party… Indiana has therefore rejected the kinds of completed transfers that the City is attempting in this case.

“For years the residents of Pleasant Ridge have lived under a cloud of uncertainty, while the mayor and many of their elected representatives on the city council illegally conspired to drive them out of their homes,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “But they persisted and fought for what they knew was right. Today, that cloud has been lifted and the residents of Pleasant Ridge can celebrate the holiday season without the fear and frustration caused by the city.”