CHARLESTOWN, IN (WAVE) - New court documents reveal the city of Charlestown had secret meetings with a local development company.
Attorneys for people living the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood believe the goal was to force homeowners in the low-income neighborhood to sell their homes.
For years, Charlestown leaders have publicly said they want to redevelop the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood.
"This is really just a case about trying to get poor people's land on the cheap," Jeffery Redfern, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, said.
Charlestown's city attorney, Michael Gillenwater, said the city acted legally.
"There is no proof of such an allegation," Gillenwater said. "Everything has been above board, in public and is proper."
The lawsuit from the Institute for Justice claimed the city began aggressively inspecting homes in Pleasant Ridge in 2016, issuing large fines for even the smallest violations with the sole goal of forcing people to sell their homes and move out. That would help Neace Ventures buy them quicker and cheaper.
"All along the city has said that the inspection program was all about health and safety," Redfern said. "Obviously not because they didn't do it until the moment the developer was on the scene ready to buy."
"There have been allegations that the city has this unwritten agreement with Neace Ventures," Gillenwater said. "There is no such agreement."
The documents include texts between Neace representative, John Hampton, and Charlestown's Mayor, Bill Hall, that identified buyers "underwater" and disabled."
"It's an old story and it happens all the time," Redfern said. "It's wrong everywhere it happens."
The documents also include notes of a "plan" for Neace's low-price purchases to establish home values, and to then board up the homes to further lower home values.
"It's not unusual for people purchasing property to do so at the lowest price that they can get," Gillenwater said.
The Institute for Justice said the low values would allow the city to spend less money if it used eminent domain to get the remaining homes in the neighborhood needed for redevelopment.
"The idea that this is all happening at arm's length and that there isn't an agreement is a little bit ridiculous," Redfern said. "They're taking advantage of a particularly vulnerable group of people."
The documents show emails between Hampton and John Neace, the owner of Neace Ventures, where it is said that the city anticipated 20 to 40 holdouts after the purchases.
"I'm telling you the city hasn't done anything wrong or unethical," Gillenwater said.
"I think conspiring with a wealthy developer to put poor people out of their homes is pretty much the definition of unethical," Redfern said.
Hampton repeatedly made notes of asking the city of an indemnity agreement that would protect Neace in case of a lawsuit. The notes indicated the city and Hampton believed it was "too soon" to put any agreement into writing.
"It's clear when you look at the documents that there's no way that a developer would be putting this kind of money at risk if they didn't know they had the city's backing to help them," Redfern said.
John Neace, the head of Neace Ventures, is the President of Louisville City FC. The documents include Neace offering free game tickets to city officials.
"I think it illustrates the kind of relationship there was here," Redfern said.
"They want to try this case in the media and I want to try this case in court," Gillenwater said.
The case heads to court Friday morning in Scott County. The hearing is over an injunction, which would stop fines against home owners.