Burned home remains neighborhood eyesore for months

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WISH) — Les Hartsock and his wife, Tammie, are greeted each morning by a view next door of their neighbors’ home — the same one that burned a week before Thanksgiving.

The same one that left a family of four unharmed but homeless.

The same one that still sits boarded up three months later.

Charred insulation is exposed. Building materials dangle from the home’s side. The roof is gone, eaten away by the flames during the Nov. 18 blaze.

“I hate to see it just sit here and sit here and sit here,” Les Hartsock said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we need to start over or have that demolished or taken care of.”

But that won’t happen. At least, not anytime soon.

An I-Team 8 investigation found some Monroe County offices were initially unaware of the problem until informed by a reporter. Further complicating the matter, the family who once lived there filed for bankruptcy two months before the fire — preventing the mortgage company from foreclosing and sending the property to a sheriff’s sale, according to federal court records.

And while Monroe County’s ordinance allows the county to take action against the property owner, county officials admit they rarely do so – and usually only do so in extreme cases. That leaves open the possibility that the house neighbors consider an eyesore could sit there a while.

Neighbors like Justin Morrison in Woodhaven Estates say they’ve noticed a smell. Morrison and Hartsock worry it will permeate during the warmer months.

“It’d be nice if they’d tear it down and get a new home put up so we don’t have to keep looking at this eyesore,” Morrison said.

Boarded up and forgotten

Representatives from three Monroe County government agencies claimed they were unaware that the home had burned and had become troublesome for neighbors.

And it was only after I-Team 8 took neighbors’ concerns to the county attorney, the health department, and building commissioner that an inspector was sent to survey the property.

Jim Gerstbauer, the county’s building commissioner, said an inspector from his office surveyed the home last week and placed a notice not to the occupy the structure. Gerstbauer also said the inspector made a note that a broken window needed to be repaired. His office plans to follow up in the coming days.

“It sounds like in this case the property is somewhat of a drag on the neighborhood. And it is probably something that should be monitored and acted against if it’s warranted. But that’s not a call I make,” said Gerstbauer.

Gerstbauer says Monroe County’s ordinance allows the county to take action if the home is deemed unsafe. But Gerstbauer contends so long as it’s boarded up and prevents the public from entering, the home doesn’t pose a real danger.

“Generally our action stops once the building is secured from public entrance,” Gerstbauer said.

When pressed if that meant the building could remain in its current state, Gerstbauer said “for a while.”

The building could be deemed unsafe under Monroe County’s unsafe building ordinance, Gerstbauer says, but that usually means the health department would have to find it poses some sort of public health threat. Further action could then be taken by the legal department, he said. At this point, that doesn’t appear likely.

Trustee thinks it should be fixed

Rita Barrow, the Van Buren Township trustee, paid to put up the displaced family in a nearby hotel days after the fire.

She said she was made aware of their financial hardship and worried this very scenario with the home becoming an eyesore would unfold. But in an interview with I-Team 8, Barrow said she felt it was the “financial institution’s responsibility” to tackle that — not her office.

As an elected township trustee, Barrow says her office’s duty is to provide fire protection for those living in the Van Buren Township. Personally motivated to help displaced families, Barrow says she often goes to fire scenes to see if she can help.

And after firefighters from her district boarded up the home shortly after the fire, Barrow claims her office’s responsibilities ended.

“But something needs to be done. And I agree with the residents; I wouldn’t want to live next door to that either,” Barrow said.

Fire likely started in basement

Fire officials with the Van Buren Fire Department told I-Team 8 that the cause of the fire was likely electrical in nature. A copy of the preliminary fire investigation obtained by I-Team 8 states that burn patterns led investigators to the basement, where it’s believed the fire started in the laundry room area. It adds fire investigators found electrical shorts in area and some wires that were fused together.

The report also states the homeowner said his dog began barking around 4 a.m., so he took him outside and began to smell smoke but thought it was leaves burning. The narrative goes on to state 30 to 40 minutes later, Les Hartsock said his neighbor then asked to use his garden hose to put out the fire, which by then had spread to the roof area.

Everyone in the burning home managed to escape without injury. Firefighters from the Van Buren Township Fire Department remained at the home for hours.

Federal court records: Mortgage hadn’t been paid in months

Federal bankruptcy records reviewed by I-Team 8 show the family filed for bankruptcy Sept. 19 — roughly two months before the fire.

In court filings from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Indianapolis, attorneys for CitiMortgage claimed the company had not received a mortgage payment in six months and that family wants the home be surrendered.

The company’s attorneys have asked a federal trustee to lift a stay – allowing the mortgage company to continue its foreclosure and have the property sold in a sheriff’s sale.

After an exchange of phone calls and emails with their attorney Carl Lamb, the family displaced by the fire declined to comment.

On Monday, I-Team 8 noticed Lamb filed a change of address form for his clients, noting that they relocated on Dec. 1.

And after interviews with county officials, attorneys, elected leaders, bank representatives and neighbors — no one can truly say how long the burned up home will continue to sit there. The county says it may need to be monitored, but so long as it’s boarded up, it doesn’t pose a danger to the public.

A CitiMortgage spokesman told I-Team 8 on Monday that it can’t take action until the bankruptcy proceeding is resolved.

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