Legal wrangling continues over the 'hole' in downtown Belleville

News-DemocratAugust 24, 2013 

A 2012 file photo of the pit that remains after several buildings burned at the corner of East Main Street and Jackson Street in 2010 in Belleville.

STEVE NAGY/BND

— Three months after a court order to cleanup a downtown fire site, two property owners are still trying to agree on a contractor and the city is preparing to intervene in case the owners don't.

After a series of extensions, the city gave the owners of what's called the "hole" at the corner of East Main and Jackson streets until Aug. 9 to hire a contractor or else the city will do the work and bill them.

The owners have not done so.

The city of Belleville on Monday cited one of the property owners, Chester Nance, with four nuisance complaints for violating a city ordinance for having weeds more than 8 inches tall.

Pending a court decision, this action would allow the city to get on Nance's property for the cleanup, said Julie Bruch, the attorney representing the city.

Nance's property makes up about one-third of the area known as the "hole." A court order already allows the city to hire contractors for the cleanup and bill Ronnie Phillips, owner of 205 E. Main St., the other two-thirds of the adjoined area.

Phillips is represented by attorney Penni Livingston.

Nance said four Belleville and O'Fallon police officers in three cars showed up at his O'Fallon home Monday morning to issue the citations to him and his Cenman Properties Inc.

The property maintenance citations state that Nance's property at 201 E. Main St. has been in violation of the city's nuisance ordinance since June 2, 2010. Nance is scheduled to be in court Sept. 16.

Nance said he is stuck in a tough spot: He can't cut the weeds to satisfy the city because it would disturb the asbestos.

And, because he just owns about a third of the space that needs to be cleaned up, he needs to wait on Phillips to hire a contractor.

"If I use a weed eater, I'm going to kick up dust and the asbestos might fly up all over Belleville," Nance said. "If the city wants to really push it, they should clear it with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and see what they say."

"It's in Ron's hands," Nance said. "He's the one negotiating with the new company. You can't really fill in my little property there without filling in some of his property or until the so-called contaminated dirt is removed."

The also city cited Phillips for similar nuisance abatement violations since June 2, 2010. The case has a hearing on Monday in which the city will ask for the judge to assess fines. The penalty could be from $250 to $1,000 per day Phillips is found to be in violation, according to city code.

It has been more than three years since the fire on May 26, 2010. Shortly after the fire, the city approved demolition of buildings on Nance's and Phillips' properties.

Since then, the city and property owners have been in a legal fight over whether the city had the right to tear down the buildings and who should pay for the demolition and cleanup.

In May, St. Clair County Judge Vincent Lopinot ruled in the city's favor in the lawsuit.

Lopinot said that the city had the right to demolish the fire-ruined buildings for public safety reasons. He said Phillips had 30 days to remove the asbestos and overgrown weeds, and grade the site with dirt, or else the city could intervene.

Since Lopinot's order, the city has given Phillips several extensions to hire a contractor.

Most recently, Nance has said he wants Phillips to find a less expensive company. Bids for the work have been more than $80,000, Nance said.

Then, in response to news the city would intervene because of the delays, Nance said he would not allow the city on to his property and would sue them for trespassing.

Bruch said the city did not sue Nance when filing suit against Phillips because Nance had always said he would be cooperative and pay his share of the costs.

Though Nance continues to say he would pay if Phillips finds lower bids, the city filed the nuisance complaints against Nance to get legal backing.

"If they don't get something signed then the city has the ability to go to court to go onto Nance's property," Bruch said.

Phillips, however, has said the city unlawfully demolished his property without notice. Phillips is appealing Lopinot's decision in the Fifth District Appellate Court.

Phillips' attorney said in an email Thursday that the asbestos originated from Nance's roof and the city demolished the buildings without regard to the asbestos.

"Julie said the city was going to do the clean up if we did not meet her deadline ... so let them do it," Livingston stated. "They caused the whole situation ..."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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