East Peoria homeowners file lawsuit against city

Scott Hilyard/ GateHouse Media Illinois
This file photo of a home at 120 Kaitlin Court in East Peoria, along with the two other adjoining homes and a home nearby at 220 Sunnybrook Drive, are sealed off as unsafe after a massive landslide this week took away most of the hill that makes up the backyard. Fences, trees, retaining walls and other debris collected in the bottom of the ravine. Typically, landslide insurance would cover the damage, but few home owners carry the policy.

EAST PEORIA — The day before the one-year anniversary of the landslides that permanently displaced four families from their homes, a lawsuit against the city of East Peoria was filed Wednesday in Tazewell County Circuit Court on their behalf.

Twenty-four other homeowners in the Pinecrest Hills subdivision whose properties were affected and devalued by the landslides are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks a minimum of $50,000 per household, or $3 million in total, in damages.

“A lawsuit was the very last resort,” said Josh Allen, who lived with his family at 120 Kaitlin Court before his forced evacuation on April 17, 2013, the night that nearly seven inches of rain fell on central Illinois. “This was nothing we ever wanted.”

The lawsuit wants the city to pay for all necessary measures to make the four houses — three on Kaitlin Court and one on Sunnybrook Avenue — habitable again. Or, as an alternative form of relief, the lawsuit seeks the restoration of the marketability and value of the rest of the houses in the subdivision lost to the stigma of living in a neighborhood of damaged properties and one that is potentially vulnerable to landslides.

The Tazewell County Board of Review reduced the value of the four homes declared to be uninhabitable and a nuisance to $360. It cut the value of every other home in the subdivision by half, for a total loss of value of the 28 homes of more than $3 million.

The lawsuit was filed one day before a one-year deadline, said Carl Reardon, the group’s attorney, and can only seek to show that the city was negligent within the last year. Reardon was East Peoria’s city attorney for 16 years, leaving in 1983. He retired from a regular practice in 1993, and works occasionally on cases that interest him and where he believes he can help.

There is evidence the city’s actions since the landslide were negligent, Reardon said. For example, the city waived the 15-day order for the homeowners to make their properties habitable or tear them down.

“By letting them sit untouched with big signs on them that say the property is dangerous and the hills are unsteady harms every other property in the area,” Reardon said. “What is the 

value of the house sitting across the street from one of these properties?”

Reardon also said the city was negligent by not admitting its ownership of the stormwater drainage easements behind the damaged properties.

“For months the city took the position that it did not know who owned the easements,” Reardon said. “Until finally in a meeting I showed them on the city’s own plat (that laid out the subdivision back in 1990 when it was built) that the city owned the easement and had not maintained the drainage system for 23 years.”

The lawsuit caps a difficult and trying year for Allen and his wife, Rachel, and their four young children. They lived in hotels for 11 days after their forced evacuation and then spent eight weeks depending on the generosity and spare rooms of friends. Last June, they were able to buy another home in East Peoria; a check from FEMA helped them make a down payment.

But their credit rating has collapsed, and they are behind on the mortgage payments on the Kaitlin Court house they still own. The county has appraised its value at $360, a depressing figure to the Allens for its lack of a comma and more zeroes at the end. Two weeks after closing on the new house, Josh Allen lost his management position of 15 years. He collected his final unemployment check this week.

“I pray that we can soon put this situation behind us, but it still lingers,” Josh Allen said. “It is our daily faith in God that keeps us in hope, pressing and patiently waiting for a better tomorrow.”

It was an equally rough year for Shana Severinsen and Jerrad Maher, the engaged couple who lived at 116 Kaitlin Court. After their rushed evacuation the night of April 17, 2013, they lived with Severinsen’s parents until they, too, were able to buy a new house with the aid of a trust fund that was established in their names.

“We are now facing foreclosure and bankruptcy if we cannot get this resolved with the city very soon,” Severinsen said. “We can’t go a day without thinking of this mess.”

David and Shawn Peterson, who lived at 220 Sunnybrook Drive, and Kyle and Julie Campbell, 112 Kaitlin Court, did not respond to efforts to contact them.

City Administrator Tom Brimberry said Wednesday afternoon that he had not read the lawsuit.

“We’ve been in touch through their lawyer and have discussed various projects for the area, so we are not surprised by the lawsuit,” Brimberry said.

In negotiations on behalf of the property owners, Reardon said the city had offered to pay $250,000 for repairs if the residents contributed the rest of the estimated $1.5 million cost.

Plaintiffs listed on the complaint:

Joshua M. Allen and Rachel N. Allen; Kyle Campbell and Julie Campbell; David Peterson; Shana Severinsen; Tegist Leyew and Kassa Mark Leyew; Michael Beamer and Kellie Beamer; Brandon Beekman and Michele Beekman; David Boggs; William A. Bulfer; Jason M. Cassidy; Del Chilton and Julie Beitz; Robert L. Cornelius, Jr.; Helen M. Elliott; Jeanie Inman; Robert H. Jorgensen; Martin L. Lyons and Tammi Lyons; Daniel Messmore and Kelly Messmore; William R. Meyers and Lee Ann Meyers; Shawn F. Miller;Randy Rundle; Myron L. Smith; Michael P. Sowers and Julie A. Sowers; Robert Stasz; David C. Stenger and Courtney Stenger; Harry Volk and Pamela G. Volk, and Christopher D. Woods and Kimberly A. Woods.

Plaintiffs listed on the complaint