‘Vendetta,' 'conspiracy': Huffs file federal suit against county over Lake Monroe property

The view from where Joe Huff wants to put a house on his property at Lake Monroe on Friday, July 15, 2022.
The view from where Joe Huff wants to put a house on his property at Lake Monroe on Friday, July 15, 2022.

Two Lake Monroe property owners have filed a federal lawsuit alleging Monroe County officials are conspiring to violate their constitutional rights and are perpetrating a “vendetta” to stop them from building a home.

William J. "Joe" and Nicole Huff own about 260 acres on the lake’s north side and want to build a home, two guest cabins and a barn there. They say, despite their best efforts to obtain local permits, county officials have repeatedly interfered with their plans in retaliation after the Huffs prevailed in a prior lawsuit in which the county paid them $50,000.

In their new lawsuit, the Huffs describe a Kafkaesque nightmare in which they are sent from one county office to another to obtain permits, many of which the Huffs say they don’t need. And when the couple tried to obtain the permits anyway, the Huffs allege county officials denied them for vague reasons, leaving them with no way to move forward.

More:What Joe Huff wants to build on his property at Lake Monroe

The Huffs also allege that to stop them from enjoying their property, local officials engaged in unusual activities, such as coordinating their efforts, privately calling a company with which the Huffs had a contract, and hastily calling a zoning meeting in violation of local rules.

The lawsuit states the conduct by the county, its plan commission and planning department “is so inexcusable that it shocks the conscience.”

Meanwhile, Monroe County attorney Dave Schilling said county is merely trying to enforce local zoning laws. In court filings, the county said the Huffs have presented no motive for the alleged vendetta and the federal court should dismiss the case because the county and the Huffs still are engaged in litigation over the same issues in state court.

What are the Huffs alleging?

The Huffs' suit reads that county officials’ “arbitrary and capricious behavior deprived the Huffs of the constitutionally protected interest in the fair use and enjoyment of their private property.” County officials’ “repeated delays, repeated demands for information that is not normally required, repeated refusals to provide information and clarification, and ‘stopping’ of the Huffs’ permit process were arbitrary, oppressive, and/or unreasonable.”

The lawsuit alleges county officials “have thrown up every obstacle they can come up with to prevent the Huffs from developing their property.

More:What to know about the Huffs' dispute with Monroe County officials

“Enough is enough,” the suit reads. “The violations of the Huffs’ constitutional rights must be put to a stop.”

Among other things, the Huffs' suit alleges:

  • Former Monroe County Planning Department Director Larry Wilson falsely told the Huffs they needed a logging permit, even though the Huffs’ property is non-urban and requires no such permit.

  • Monroe County Commissioner Julie Thomas called a logging company with which the Huffs had a contract to complain about the planned work on the Huffs’ land.

  • Planners and the plan commission considered delay tactics such as contacting state agencies including the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers.

  • The county approved the Huffs’ six septic permits between 133 days and 343 days after the date of application, even though the county is required to reach a decision within 45 days. “The county attributed all delays to a flood plain review, despite the fact that none of the septic permit applications land in a flood plain.”

  • Wilson and Schilling led zoning officials to believe the Huffs’ activities posed a risk to public health, “even though neither had any reason to believe that it was true.” An inspection by the IDEM also indicated the Huffs had “gone above and beyond best management practices for logging activity.”

  • Wilson hastily called a zoning meeting in violation of local procedure — a meeting that was held away from its usual location and was not broadcast, as is usual — and that he convinced members of the Monroe County Board of Zoning Appeals to retroactively approve a lawsuit against the Huffs. Former Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, a lawyer, who served on the board at the time, said the process was a “bastardization” of the normal way the BZA works. Kruzan was bothered so much he left mid-meeting.

  • The suit also alleges county officials, including Monroe County Planning Director Jacqueline Jelen, made the Huffs jump through unnecessary hoops and “stopped” or denied applications by giving reasons that are “without basis in fact or law.”

The suit reads that Jelen also told the Huffs they needed a building construction permit from the building department, but an employee there sent them back to the planning department for a site plan approval. The problem: The Huffs say the county portal has no place for a site plan application for a residential property — only for a commercial property.

The suit also alleges Jelen listed some items the site plan application lacked, but then also wrote it lacked “more” but “offers no specification information about what ‘more’ is missing.”

The Huffs repeatedly ran into these kinds of “go-here-go-there-get-this-get-that problems,” according to the lawsuit.

A restricted slope on Joe Huff's property at Lake Monroe on Friday, July 15, 2022.
A restricted slope on Joe Huff's property at Lake Monroe on Friday, July 15, 2022.

“The Huffs have been shuffled back and forth for years between the County’s Planning Department, Building Department, Health Department, Stormwater Department and Highway Department without clear direction on how to proceed,” the suit reads.

What's Monroe County's defense?

Jelen and Thomas referred questions to the county’s legal department. Schilling said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation except to say the county is merely trying to enforce zoning laws.

The county, in its response to the suit, said the court should dismiss the Huffs case or at least wait until the case before the state court has been resolved.

More:Legal battle between Monroe County, Lake Monroe property owners drags on

“The parties are currently litigating a parallel suit in Indiana state court — a suit that involves the same property, the same zoning rules, the same parties, and some of the very same claims,” the county said. “This federal lawsuit thus seeks to interfere in a pending and overlapping civil enforcement proceeding that provides a full and fair opportunity for the Huffs to raise all their federal constitutional claims.”

“Zoning disputes are commonplace, and local and state laws provide familiar processes for resolving them,” the county wrote. “Yet sometimes property owners attempt to transform a mine-run local zoning dispute into a federal constitutional case. And federal courts consistently reject such attempts. That is precisely what the Court should do here.”

If the federal court takes up the case now, the court should dismiss the case in part because the Huffs have not shown that the county is treating them differently from other property owners, the county response said. In addition, the county wrote the Huffs have not stated a motive for the county’s alleged retaliation.

“The County has a rational interest in enforcing its Zoning Ordinance, especially given the particular significance of Monroe Lake — a crucial nature resource that provides drinking water to the City of Bloomington and that the parties’ own Settlement Agreement notes 'is a primary concern for both parties,'” the county wrote.

PreviouslyCounty attorneys: Huffs' recent court filing 'disingenuous'

“In the end, the Huffs’ retaliation claim again boils down to their core allegation that the County failed to follow state law when enforcing its zoning ordinances. But as the Seventh Circuit observed in rejecting a similar claim … there is ‘no need to bring the heavy artillery of a federal lawsuit into play, because state remedies would be entirely adequate.’”

Further, the county said, inspections in April showed the Huffs “have continued to engage in residential construction and indicated that they have failed to comply with erosion-control requirements.”

Discord in county over additional legal bills

Monroe County Commissioners recently approved the county legal department’s request to spend up to $50,000 to hire Indianapolis law firm Barnes & Thornburg to handle the new Huff case. The commissioners made that decision in less than three minutes, without discussion or even mentioning the Huffs by name.

The additional expenditures have generated some discord in other local meetings: When the Monroe County Council recently approved additional dollars for the legal department, council member Marty Hawk voted against the measure. Hawk could not be reached to say why. Schilling had requested additional dollars primarily because of costs related to the Huff case.

'This whole process is a bastardization'Zoning board ratifies decision to sue Huffs, despite one member's concerns

And when the matter came before the county plan commission, the agency’s president, Margaret Clements, got into a heated exchange with commission member James Stainbrook.

Stainbrook, who has since left the commission, criticized the county’s decision to settle the state case.

“We took the easy way out,” he said. “I think I can say that. Because mistakes were allegedly made."

Clements did not reply to an email seeking comment.

Huff, meanwhile, said he’s not backing down, in part because he said the county is making it increasingly difficult for people to build their dream homes.

The county, he said, is going to have to spend a lot more than $50,000 on the federal lawsuit.

Contact reporter Boris Ladwig at bladwig@heraldt.com.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Lake Monroe property the subject of a federal lawsuit against county