RURAL RANTOUL — An official with a company that owns a closed apartment building east of Cherry Orchard Village apartment complex said he will ask Champaign County to rezone the property as a multifamily dwelling so he can fix up the building and rent it out again.
The property, known as the Jones building, technically is not part of the Cherry Orchard complex, but it is connected to the same septic system and was being purchased by Bernard and Eduardo Ramos, caretakers of Cherry Orchard, located along U.S. 45 between Rantoul and Thomasboro.
The Jones building has been vacant since last July when tenants, primarily migrant workers, were removed from the site by a court order because of the condition of the septic system.
John Hall, Champaign County director of planning and zoning, said last week that Rick Stone, owner of K&S Co., had inquired about having the county rezone the apartment building.
Hall said the Jones building was grandfathered in and allowed for use as a multi-tenant dwelling after the county zoning laws were changed several years ago. But because the Jones building has been vacant for more than six months, its zoning exemption has lapsed.
"That's the time limit where if it's unoccupied you lose your noncomforming rights," Hall said.
Hall said he isn't sure how much luck Stone will have getting the property rezoned.
Stone said the Ramoses had been buying the Jones building from K&S on contract for the last three years and have defaulted.
He said the first step in seeking the rezoning was to approach the nearest community, which in this case is Rantoul.
Village Inspector Dan Culkin, who verified that he spoke with Stone, said it will be up to the village board to decide if it wants to vote for or against recommending the zoning be allowed.
"My response would be negative at this time because I don't know what they're going to do with the property," Culkin said. "Also, it's in direct conflict with our comprehensive plan."
The comprehensive plan includes a mile and a half outside village limits — for planning purposes and future development. Culkin said the plan does not encompass zoning unless the village has an agreement with companies and individuals.
Cherry Orchard Village and the Jones building fall within that mile-and-a-half boundary, and the village plan considers that area commercial rather than residential, Culkin said.
Stone said he had yet to speak with Hall on the zoning issue because Hall was out of town, but he planned to do so this week.
If the county were to deny the zoning request, Stone said, "I would have to go back to the beginning, whether I turn it into storage units, which would (create its own) problems. If it's vacant or dormant, I don't think it's going to fix the problem."
Hall said the neighboring Cherry Orchard apartments are properly zoned, but they, too, remain closed. They are connected to the same non-functioning septic system.
While the county has been able to close Cherry Orchard apartments and the Jones building because of the septic issues, Hall said the county might take additional action to see that the properties remain closed until things change there.
He said his office has sent a complaint to the state's attorney's office "that we thought they were dangerous buildings."
"That's related to the issues with the septic system," Hall said. "It's actually a bigger problem than with the septic system."
Hall said "not too much has happened in court" on that complaint.
Assistant State's Attorney Joel Fletcher said he cannot comment on any possible pending litigation.
Champaign-Urbana Public Health District officials returned to the site late last month after receiving reports that signs had either been taken down or blown down at the Jones building.
Julie Pryde, public health administrator, said it appeared screws had been taken off boards covering windows and doors and that someone had been living in the Jones building recently. The boards were replaced, and a more permanent sign was erected at the entrance.
At a bench trial last year, Judge John Kennedy ordered the Ramoses to pay fines of $37,900 for unlawful discharge of sewage, $16,000 for unlawful rental of non-compliant property, $100 for failure to obtain a construction permit and $100 for unlawful repair or alteration of a sewer system.
Kennedy also ordered that the apartment complex be shut down until the sewage problems had been remedied.
The Ramoses failed to comply, however, and Kennedy ordered that they appear in court to answer a petition for contempt of court for failing to vacate the facility. Neither Ramos appeared in court, and Kennedy issued contempt-of-court orders.
Neither Ramos had been found until late February when Eduardo was arrested in Virginia. He is due back in Champaign County Circuit Court on April 26.