[EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the total acreage sought for seizure in the lawsuits.]
COLUMBUS — A new Ohio House bill revisits ongoing legal battles over local land seizures by Mill Creek MetroParks for a recreational bike trail.
House Bill 63, introduced last week by state Reps. Al Cutrona of Canfield, R-59th, and Reggie Stolzfus of Paris Township, R-50th, would revise the state’s eminent domain laws to give governing bodies and probate courts veto powers when such land-taking is for a recreational trail.
That bill was in response to court filings by Mill Creek MetroParks commissioners beginning in late 2018 to acquire about 30 acres from parcels totaling several hundreds of acres owned by mostly private landowners, in order to finish a 6.4-mile span of bikeway through Mahoning County that would connect to a 100-mile bike trail running from Ashtabula to East Liverpool.
“There’s obviously a balance between utilizing eminent domain. To use it for a recreational trail that is affecting so many peoples’ lives — it seems to be an overstep,” Cutrona told Mahoning Matters.
“It’s always best to have local control,” he said, adding those granted new veto powers under his bill — township trustee boards, village or city councils and probate judges — “best understand what fits the needs of the people in their area.”
More specifically, the bill allows for new veto powers in counties with only one probate court judge — which includes Mahoning County, whose Judge Robert Rusu appoints the MetroParks’ commissioners — and only after homeowners have filed objections to the land seizure. Eminent domain seizures could then be stopped by a majority vote of the governing body or a probate court ruling, according to the bill.
State Rep. Tim Ginter of Salem, R-5th, whose district includes all of Columbiana County, is also listed as a co-sponsor.
Though some of those affected landowners have accepted the MetroParks’ offers, several are still fighting their lawsuits, determined to keep whole land that, in some cases, has been in their families for generations.
Diane Less, director of Angels for Animals in Canfield, said she’s spent at least $13,000 to date on property appraisals and witness depositions in her case, which was first filed in 2019. The parks’ proposal would split 6 acres from her South Range Road property with a 65-foot wide swath for the proposed trail, she told The Vindicator in March 2019.
“We’re standing our ground that they don’t have the right to take our property,” Less told Mahoning Matters.
Mike and Barbara Cameron are also still fighting to keep their 158-acre parcel from being bisected by the 6-acre-long proposed trail.
“We definitely don’t want it,” Barbara told Mahoning Matters on Monday. “Our grandkids don’t want it and [the property] is gonna’ go to them.”
Barbara estimated they’ve spent about $6,000 thus far on appraisals and court reporters — not to mention court costs in the case, which began in late 2018 and has lately been further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MetroParks’ suit offers a one-time payment of $35,700 for permanent rights to that 6-acre stretch. They’ve tried to negotiate the price, but to no avail — “they wouldn’t move at all,” Barbara said.
Speaking with The Vindicator in June 2019, the Camerons were concerned about security along the trail, planned to run about a football field’s length from their home.
They were also concerned the trail would separate their beef cows from their water source. Though their livelihood is in animal husbandry, they’re now beginning to plant more grain on the other side of the proposed trail and need space to bring in a combine, Barbara said Monday.
“I don’t even want to think about it going through because it would mess everything up,” she said. “Our cows are so used to where they are.”
Cutrona said HB 63 is expected to apply to existing eminent domain litigation as well, though he noted the new measure would likely need to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Construction on this still-disputed Mahoning County span of the 100-mile Great Ohio Lake to River Greenway was expected to begin in 2020 or 2021 and cost about $4.5 million, officials told The Vindicator in June 2019.
“We are disappointed that Rep. Cutrona did not seek out any factual information from or consider any potential negative impacts to his hometown MetroParks as a result of the blind reintroduction of this bill,” MetroParks Executive Director Aaron Young told Mahoning Matters in an email Monday.
The MetroParks has spent about $185,000 to date on legal services in its 13 eminent domain lawsuits, according to Young.
Of those cases, four have been settled, often for more than was initially offered, court records show. One lawsuit against the Beaver Creek Sportsman’s Club in Washingtonville offered $13,325 and was settled for $20,000. In a separate case, a $525 offer to a private homeowner was settled for $5,000.
Several other cases are set for jury trials or conferences later this year, or are awaiting the outcome of related appeals, according to court records.