Abandoned house source of frustration for Yankee Ridge residents

Abandoned house source of frustration for Yankee Ridge residents

There's nothing unusual about a vacant house. But one that has sat empty for nearly 30 years in the heart of a swank Urbana subdivision raises eyebrows.

The home owned by Henri Merkelo not only has raised eyebrows, but also the ire of neighbors living on Pine Circle in Yankee Ridge. The neighborhood, on the outskirts of Urbana, with its architecturally distinctive homes, is not the sort of place you would expect to find a long-abandoned house.

The house was built in the late 1970s by Merkelo (who also has gone by Henry) and never was inhabited, according to neighbors who have lived on Pine Circle since the beginning. Nor is it clear if the interior or other features were completed.

The home has not been maintained and has a long list of needs, among them:

– Shake shingles are falling off;

– The wood siding is badly deteriorated;

– The garage door is off its tracks and doesn't close;

– Abandoned cars (two Mercedes-Benzes, no less) without license plates and surrounded by brush sit in the driveway;

– A never-graded pile of dirt remains in the backyard;

– Torn blankets cover the windows; and

– A wobbly back deck is missing the railing.

The home has no electrical service.

Because the home is outside city limits, the problem of what to do with it falls to county government.

The county received its first formal complaint about the poor condition of the house in October 1990, which the department of planning and zoning resolved in February 1991. The department received additional complaints from neighbors in 2000 (and has received more complaints since), and those have not been resolved.

"One of the reasons this has been going on since 2000 is that we've never heard from Mr. Merkelo. Our standard process is to send out an initial notice and then in 15 days send out a final notice if we haven't heard from you. We then refer the matter to the state's attorney," said John Hall, director of planning and zoning.

The homeowner always is given the benefit of the doubt in the court system, and not being able to locate Merkelo, who last reportedly lived in Pennsylvania, proved to be a stumbling block.

"Frankly, our big problem is that we can't proceed until we can find him and serve him. We've not been able to do that," said Susan McGrath, assistant state's attorney.

But county government probably won't have the last word with Merkelo. The Internal Revenue Service in October 2005 filed a lien in the amount of $366,000 against homes and vacant lots owned by Merkelo in Urbana.

"The IRS doesn't have the same restrictions we do," McGrath said. "The IRS can take action without serving him."

Because of privacy laws, the IRS cannot release information about the liens or where it stands in collecting money the agency says Merkelo owes the federal government. The lien, a copy of which was obtained by The News-Gazette, is for the alleged nonpayment of individual income taxes.

This is not the first time Merkelo has been in arrears to the IRS, which filed a $20,725 lien on his property in 1988 (a release was filed a few months later). The Illinois Department of Revenue also filed a $3,512 lien against Merkelo in 1988. It, too, was settled within months.

Merkelo is a man of mystery. He was an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UI from the early 1970s through the mid-'90s. Much of his early work at the UI involved lasers, and he later co-founded a company known as atSpeed Technologies, which specializes in high-speed digital networks.

In the '70s, Merkelo also became involved in property development. Within Yankee Ridge, he started the Birchcrest subdivisions. Two homes built by Merkelo, including the vacant home on Pine Circle, are in Birchcrest I. He still has seven vacant lots in the Birchcrest developments, and all property taxes have been paid through the years.

"There are seven empty lots out here that he's not selling. People have come out here and said, 'I want these lots,' but he won't work with them. It's very strange because Birchcrest is his development," said Deb Hartman, who lives just down the street. She and her husband, Mike, have lived in their house for 29 years.

Several attempts were made to reach Merkelo for this story. There is no published phone listing for him, and e-mails bounced back because the address was no longer valid.

Five years ago, Peggy Pennacchi and her husband bought a lot in Birchcrest III, next to a vacant one owned by Merkelo. But they recently decided to sell the lot.

"Just the junk and the trash, the refuse in the commons area and the general atmosphere of neglect," Pennacchi said. "And we've heard all these stories about the empty Pine Circle property.

"It gives me the creeps."

Many subdivisions have covenants that place restrictions on homeowners. Examples include not letting a home get run down, not keeping a dog outside and not parking a motorhome on the property. However, the covenants for Birchcrest are in an odd limbo.

"The covenants are all moot because Merkelo never paid the trusteeship fees. Because of that we can't form a homeowners association. We're in a funny no-man's land," said Marianne Fineberg, another neighbor. "This whole thing is pushing 30 years – that's a long time for a neighborhood to put up with this."

Besides having an effect on their home values, residents of the area say the Merkelo home in the cul-de-sac at Pine Circle is a safety hazard and that a solution is long overdue. The home is easily accessible through Meadowbrook Park.

"This empty house to me is disgusting, and I'm surprised no one has ever done anything about it. It's crazy. It's insane why someone hasn't done anything by now," Hartman said. "We have always known that house was empty.

"I was busy raising my children, and I always thought it would go away, but it hasn't."

The abandoned home was not given its own street address because it hasn't been occupied. It shares the same address, 3304 Pine Circle, with another home Merkelo owns.

Doral Johnson, an ex-wife of U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, lives in the house at 3304 Pine Circle and accepts mail addressed to Merkelo. Her house, too, was empty for most of its life.

"Both of those houses had been empty until Doral moved in out of the clear blue sky a couple of years ago," Hartman said.

Sandra Beak is another neighbor fed up with the condition of the vacant house and Merkelo's empty lots.

"We've lived here 22 years, and we planted a number of trees to the east to block the view of the empty lot. We kept thinking something would be built. Then, maybe 10 years ago, it hit us that nothing would ever be done," Beak said.

"The bad condition of the vacant house has become more urgent because children live in Pine Circle. We're afraid they could wander into the home and be injured. And there are all manner of animals out here. We're certain the vacant home is covered with animal feces. It's a miracle that there hasn't been a fire or that someone hasn't been injured."

The inability of the county to take action and the lack of any kind of response from Merkelo have taken their toll on the neighborhood.

"My husband offered to buy (the home). The people in the neighborhood went together and offered to buy and develop his empty lots. But Henri doesn't respond," Hartman said. "We're just trying to figure out how we can make a wrong right."

The ultimate goal is to get the house torn down – Hartman and other neighbors think it is beyond redemption – and the lot sold. Because the house borders Meadowbrook Park, it is in a prime location.

Hartman hopes the IRS lien means that a solution will come sooner rather than later.

"At least within a year after I die," she joked.

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