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Richmond mayor blames 'negligent' property owner for fire, says he ignored orders to clean after being cited

The City of Richmond provided dozens of pages of documents
The City of Richmond has known for years the site of a massive warehouse fire was a fire hazard.
The City of Richmond has known for years the site of a massive warehouse fire was a fire hazard.
Posted at 5:36 PM, Apr 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-14 15:25:27-04

RICHMOND — The City of Richmond has known for years that the site of a massive warehouse fire was a fire hazard.
Richmond Mayor Dave Snow blames a “negligent business owner” for ignoring the city’s orders to clean up the property.

Following a request from WRTV Investigates, the City of Richmond provided dozens of pages of documents.

The city cited the property owner back in 2019 for being an unsafe structure, and the battle has been ongoing for the past four years, records show.

Records show Cornerstone Trading Group LLC and Seth Smith of Union County own the property that caught fire.

In 2019, the City of Richmond conducted an inspection and found:

  • Excessive plastic materials stored in and around the buildings constituting a fire hazard
  • Substantial amounts of materials strewn about the properties such that combustible materials are located with 10 feet of a lot line
  • Insufficient means of ingress and egress due to materials stored in and near the premises, as well as combustible material being stored near exits and in enclosures for stairways or ramps
  • Insufficient fire suppression
  • Insufficient illumination of means of egress
  • Loose material blowing around the unsafe premises
  • Roof damage allowing water to infiltrate, leaning walls, decaying foundation, and masonry falling out

The city’s Unsafe Building Commission issued an order requiring the owner to remediate the properties. 

“The order was ignored,” said Richmond Mayor Dave Snow.
Included in the city’s order to the property:

  • Repair roofs, walls and structural components to comply with city code and state laws; or remove structures
  • Remove materials to bring means of egress in compliance with city code and state law
  • Install fire suppression and fire alarms to comply with city code and state law
  • Remove materials to comply with city code and state law
  • Building needs to comply with all emergency lighting
  • Repair and activate all fire suppression and fire alarms

In response, Cornerstone Trading Group and Seth Smith filed a lawsuit against the city, but a trial court sided with the City of Richmond Unsafe Building Commission in 2020.

“This was a fear for us and why we’ve taken so many steps to prevent this from happening,” said Richmond Mayor Dave Snow. “Everything that ensued here—the fire, the damages, the risk our first responders have taken and the risk the citizens are under are the responsibility of that negligent business owner.”

The city attorney says the owner failed to pay the property taxes for two of the three parcels.

The city acquired a portion of the property back in 2021 and started its own cleanup efforts.

"We took a portion of it from the business owner in a tax sale to hold that person accountable for this cleanup,” said Snow. “They are still accountable for every bit of the mess on this site. They are responsible for the fire that has happened and all of the damage that ensued afterward."

City attorney AJ Sickmann said Thursday the city secured an EPA grant to identify and categorize the materials, which the property owner sells overseas, however the city ran into roadblocks in cleaning up its portion of the property.

"There was the bank that had security interests in all of these materials," said Sickmann. "It wasn’t like we could just start removing these and disposing of them because of that collateral that the bank had.  That was the plan, but unfortunately with the pandemic, it became a down market and the business owner had difficulties in selling those materials but he was actively doing that, the city was monitoring that process. "

WRTV Investigates stopped by Seth Smith’s home address in Union County, but we couldn’t get far because of a no trespassing sign.

WRTV could see smoke from Smith’s home, which is 14 miles from the fire.
WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney also stopped by an attorney listed for Smith, Ronald Moore of Richmond.
Attorney Ronald Moore declined to comment.

Court records show Seth Smith admitted in a 2019 hearing that his properties were “out of control.”

The city attorney and mayor said Thursday they may take future legal action against the property owner and are now gathering city costs associated with the cleanup.

"If we are moving into future litigation in this, we are tracking all of those costs for that reason," said Mayor Snow.

City attorney AJ Sickmann said he has not yet been in touch with the property owner Seth Smith regarding the fire.

"Right now the focus is on the site and the health and safety of the residents," said Sickmann. "Once we are past that in the near future, my focus will shift toward a legal lens and I will be in contact. It’s going to be a process. But there will be an accountability component to this on the back end."

The city attorney says the original company name was “My-Way Trading,” however, the company became Cornerstone Trading Group following a bankruptcy.

WRTV Investigates also checked with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and found in 2013 IDEM began investigating My Way Trading for improperly storing hazardous materials.

My Way Trading was issued a Proposed Agreed Order and Notice of Violation. The facility entered negotiations with IDEM and eventually signed an Agreed Order with a negotiated civil penalty of $10,200.

My Way Trading paid the $10,200 penalty over a 10-month period, according to IDEM.

"My Way Trading d.b.a. Diversified Green Solutions does not have any active permits on record with IDEM, as they do not process any waste or recyclable materials, and are not subject to regular site inspections," said Barry Sneed, an IDEM spokesperson, in an email to WRTV. "However, an IDEM inspector visited the property as recently in 2018 in response to a complaint and determined that the facility was not in violation of agency regulations or law under IDEM’s authority." 

The city attorney said when the fire broke out, the warehouse was operational— to an extent.

"We were permitting the property owner to remove existing material so we could ship those overseas," said Sickmann. "We were not permitting the property owner to add additional materials. The only operation was removing these things to abate the fire hazard."

The enforcement actions include the addresses 308 N.W. F Street, 310 N.W. F Street and 358 N.W. F Street, according to records.

It's not yet clear on which parcel of land the fire started— the city's parcels or the property owner's portion.