A tract of land on Bloomington’s near south side has been the site of at least 2 fires this year alone. The ownership of the property is in limbo, and many homeless people occupy the old structures on the site. With the expansion of the B-Line Trail, the blighted lot is getting more exposure, and people are beginning to raise concerns about safety.
From 1st and Morton Streets in Bloomington, you can see an old Amoco Fuel sign mounted high on a brick building that used to be a bulk fuel oil distributor. The building is covered with graffiti, and almost all the multi-paned windows have been broken out.
Its unknown how many homeless currently occupy the property, but evidence of vagrants litter the yard. Several yards away, a container of rotting strawberries sits above a short, hollow concrete plank where below, a crude sleeping bunk has been constructed.
“I guess they’d been there for years, I’ve got no idea when they started staying in there.”
That’s Stuart Moore, former owner of the Stuart Moore Oil Company. When he first purchased the property, he tried to run the homeless out, but with little success.
“Tried to get rid of them, but you couldn’t.” Moore said. “You’d run them out, but like chickens, they’d follow you back in. We decided the best way to work it was to co-exist with them. Most of them, if you didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother you. They come in during the night, and leave when we opened up.”
The building and its surrounding above ground fuel tanks were closed and sealed in 2005. Since then, there have been several fires in the main building.
According to Bloomington Fire Chief Roger Kerr, while none of the fires has been proved arson, he doesn’t rule it out.
“Obviously,” Kerr said, “with a building such as this with no electricity and no utilities running to it, that’s a conclusion you could draw.”
When firefighters respond to that building, they can’t assume it is unoccupied.
“Knowing the fact that it is a place the homeless sometimes gather,” he said, “we have been approaching it as if there is someone in there every time we went.”
The fire department turned the building over to the Bloomington Housing and Neighborhood Development department earlier this month. HAND is currently working with the Moore family to keep homeless out of the building by enforcing the city’s unsafe building ordinance.
HAND Director Lisa Abbott, says despite efforts by the Moores to seal the building, homeless continue to break in.
“Its been a continuous battle,” she said, “to keep the property sealed up. When I have called them, they have made attempts to do so. You can see where they welded metal to parts of the openings, the windows and doors, but that was not able to keep people out.”
To complicate the matter, the property is currently in a state of legal limbo. The Moore family technically lost the property in a tax sale and Fields Environmental, a local family owned company that specializes in environmental consulting and brown-field reclamation, acquired the tax lien.
Under Indiana law, Fields Environmental owner Rudy Fields will not be able to legally possess the building until this fall at the earliest, and Moore could choose to pay the back taxes and repossess the property.
Even if Fields does take possession of the property, plans for the site are still in limbo, as the actual environmental condition of the it is not yet know.
“The uncertainty associated with the environmental condition of the property is one of the factors,” Fields said. “The level of renovation or demolition, or just what it would take to get the place in a position to be ready to go, will be a lot of money, and that’s always going to be the challenge.”
According to Abbott, the city hopes eventually the site will be cleaned up.
“We’re trying to create a situation that is safe for everybody,” she said, “and work with people to make sure that gets done.”
Until that happens, Fields warns people to stay away from the site.
“I don’t go around there much,” he said. “I recommend people don’t, it’s a dangerous place.”
The property is within Bloomington’s Urban Enterprise Zone, which could mean its eligible for a number of property tax breaks, depending on what ends up developing on the site.