Who's responsible for Belleville hole? Trial will determine who pays for clean-up

News-DemocratApril 27, 2013 

— A trial is set to start Tuesday over whether the city or the property owner has to pick up the tab for demolition and cleanup at the site of a downtown fire.

In December, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot dismissed building owner Ronnie Phillips' claim that the city illegally demolished his building at 205 E. Main St.

It was the demolition of this building, and the adjacent 201 E. Main, that created "the hole" at the corner of Jackson and Main streets in downtown Belleville.

Lopinot said the city had the right to demolish the building without a notice or court order because "the building was in a dangerous fire condition."

But Lopinot did not say which party had to clean up the asbestos and hole left behind. That's the unresolved issue to be decided at trial.

The city is asking that Phillips be ordered to pay as much as $972,000 in fines for leaving exposed asbestos at the demolition site. The fine amounts to $50 to $1,000 per day for the nearly three years since the buildings were ordered demolished by Mayor Mark Eckert.

Chester Nance, owner of 201 E. Main, has signed an affidavit indicating that at least some of the asbestos on the site came from his building.

Nance's insurance company paid Hank's Excavating and Landscaping for the cost of demolishing his building. But Nance has not paid to clean the asbestos and the city did not name him in the lawsuit.

Nance and Phillips both say they do not know why the city excluded Nance from the clean-up lawsuit.

"Everything started on (Nance's) side," Phillips said. "I'm not putting this on him, but it started there, why am I getting sued?"

There is no animosity between the property owners, who are both angry with the city.

"I didn't sue the city, which I wish now that I had," Nance said. "I hope to hell the city of Belleville has to come up with some big money for Ron Phillips. He got screwed more than I did."

Nance and Phillips said they previously reached an agreement with the city and Hank's to share the $42,000 clean-up cost. But then the city said it will not pay for the asbestos clean-up because of "bad faith" shown by Phillips for not paying the city for demolition costs.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has cited the city, the two property owners and Hank's for allowing asbestos into the air and not notifying them of the demolition.

The IEPA also threatened to send the case to the state attorney general if the asbestos now sitting exposed in the vacant lot is not cleaned up.

DAY OF THE FIRE

The saga began in the early morning of May 26, 2010, when a fire broke out in Nance's building and spread to Phillips'.

According to sworn affidavits, Belleville Fire Chief Scott Lanxon arrived at the scene at 2:45 a.m. and Eckert arrived less than an hour later. Within hours, Eckert decided to bring down both buildings.

Eckert consulted with Lanxon and City Engineer Tim Gregowicz before deciding the buildings were unsafe and needed to be demolished, according to court records.

Gregowicz's affidavit states that he consulted with insurance company representatives and a structural engineer from Kaskaskia Engineering before telling Phillips the buildings had to be demolished.

But the affadavit of structural engineer Heather Neri, formerly of Kaskaskia Engineering, states that she never gave city officials her opinion about the structural integrity of either building.

Gregowicz met with Phillip's State Farm insurance agent and a State Farm adjuster in a garage attached to 205 E. Main, Phillips said. The garage was later demolished.

"They came out and said, 'OK, it has to come down now. You have two hours to get everything out,'" Phillips said.

After unsuccessfully attempting to contact William Daniel, his attorney at the time, Phillips returned to the scene 45 minutes later with a truck and was told he could not retrieve any of his belongings because demolition had to begin immediately.

Nance did not learn that his building was taken down until two days later when his wife, Marilyn, went to inspect the damage. Nance said he never told Eckert the city could knock down his building. He gave the city permission to push in one wall of his building that Eckert said was leaning toward the street.

"I didn't see it leaning, but I said, 'If it's for safety reasons, sure, knock it down,'" Nance said.

NO PERMISSION?

Livingston believes the city did not follow city or state laws requiring court authorization in deciding to demolish the buildings.

The city also did not get the professional opinion of a structural engineer saying the buildings were unsafe, Livingston said.

On May 28, 2010, two days after the fire and right before Memorial Day weekend, the city sent Phillips a letter informing him that he had five days to have his building at 207 E. Main inspected by a structural engineer to ensure it was structurally sound.

This left Phillips little time to get an engineer, so he asked Gregowicz to perform the inspection. That's when he learned Gregowicz is not a structural engineer.

"If I had known Tim Gregowicz wasn't a structural engineer, I would never have let them take the building down," Phillips said. "I would have gone over and stood in the building."

The city later sent both Nance and Phillips bills for extinguishing the fire and demolishing the buildings. The bills included more than $1,000 for repairs to a fire truck damaged while extinguishing the fire, more than $14,000 for overtime worked by the fire department and about $160 for employees of Hank's to have dinner at Big Daddy's.

Nance said Eckert verbally dismissed the bills when Nance asked why he was being charged for services his taxes already fund. Phillips believes the city still expects him to pay.

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