By PAM G. DEMPSEY/CU-CitizenAccess
A Champaign County judge granted a temporary restraining order Thursday that gives public health officials the power to evict tenants living at an apartment complex north of Thomasboro and ordered the managers jailed until the complex's problems are repaired.
Bernard and Eduardo Ramos, managers of the Cherry Orchard Village apartment complex, were ordered in April to close down the property and fined more than $54,000 in a civil case filed by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
The two were found guilty of failing to legally connect and repair sewage systems for six of the eight buildings on the property. During several inspections, health department officials have found raw sewage on top of the ground and discovered sewage flowing into a neighboring farmer's tile. The case was opened in 2007 and filed in court in 2010 after the Ramoses failed to remedy the problems.
The raw sewage poses serious health risks for both the tenants at Cherry Orchard and people they come in contact with — such as hepatitis A, E. Coli and salmonella , health officials said.
Yet as several witnesses testified Thursday in a nearly four-hour hearing, the property is still being rented and the sewage problems continue.
The public health district filed a petition for a restraining order to stop the continued use of the property.
Judge John Kennedy granted a temporary restraining order until July 17 that allows county health officials to evict tenants from the property and make sure no one else moves in. He also amended two arrest warrants issued in May for Bernard and Eduardo Ramos — on a civil contempt and criminal contempt of court — after they failed to show up for a hearing.
Up until Thursday, the two had to post the full amount of each warrant — a total of $20,000 each- to get released if they were arrested. Now if they are arrested, they will remain incarcerated until the sewage problems at Cherry Orchard are fixed — either through emptying out the property or repairing the sewage system.
Neither Bernard Ramos or his father, Eduardo Ramos, appeared in court on Thursday and their attorney, Philip Summers, unsuccessfully tried to vacate the warrants — arguing first that the Ramoses were not given enough notice to appear in court the day the warrants were issued and second, that the building now being used is not part of the Cherry Orchard complex and therefore not in violation of the April orders.
Summers said earlier that the Ramoses have filed a post-trial motion that highlights several errors in the original hearing. Once a ruling is issued on that motion, the Ramoses may opt to file an appeal, Summer said.
A message left for Bernard Ramos on a cell phone number he is known to use was unreturned Thursday evening. The two have repeatedly declined comment on stories about Cherry Orchard.
Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said county officials will print and distribute eviction notices in Spanish and English beginning Friday and visit the property with a translator to make sure people move out. The health department is working with social service agencies to provide emergency housing for the families until they can find permanent housing elsewhere.
"There is a lot of people living there now, and a lot more on the way," Pryde said.
The health department will also post signs warning people away.
Cherry Orchard has been used as a migrant camp and health officials remain concerned that it will be used again as such this summer. A state official testified Thursday that Bernard Ramos submitted an application for a migrant camp at the property on behalf of a not-for-profit company called La Posada and spoke of preparations he has made to house about 80 migrant workers in one of the buildings there.
Pryde said she was "disturbed" and "horrified" by the application.
Since the April order, health officials have continued to observe tenants on the property. Rantoul-area social service workers have reported that new clients are listing Cherry Orchard as their place of residence on applications for help.
At a status hearing in May, the judge issued two warrants each for civil contempt of court and criminal contempt of court after the Ramoses failed to show up. The pair informed the state's attorney's office that they were on extended leave in Texas. As of Wednesday, the warrants have yet to be served.
County officials and neighbors have seen tenants in the far-east building on the property, commonly referred to as the "Jones Building," which has its own sewage treatment units.
In earlier agreements with the Ramoses, public health officials had suggested that Ramos could move tenants to The Jones Building if they legally repaired that sewage system. Septic professionals testified Thursday that the building's sewage system does not work and continues to release raw sewage into the property's main discharge line, which flows into a neighboring farmer's tile and then into a creek.