Ohio court overturns Mill Creek eminent domain ruling

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Seen here is part of the Mill Creek MetroParks Bike Trail, which park officials attempted to expand by using eminent domain to acquire private property in Green Township.

(Mill Creek Metropolitan Parks)

Ohio appeals judges ruled Thursday in favor of private landowners in Green Township, from whom Mill Creek MetroParks is trying to acquire land to complete a 100-mile public bike path in several counties that has been long in to build.

Diane Less, a resident of Green Township who is also the director of Angels for Animals in Canfield, is still fighting against the acquisition of MetroParks. Although a Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas judge in June 2020 declined to rule in her favor in two related cases, the appeals court overturned both rulings on Thursday.

The court also determined that MetroParks “abused its discretion” by approving a resolution to acquire the property through eminent domain, since the proposed use of the land is not within its authority.

MetroParks has been in litigation for years with mostly private landowners to appropriate approximately 30 acres along a 6.4-mile stretch, where the proposed cycle path would cross Mahoning County and connect to a 100-mile cycle route stretching from Ashtabula to East Liverpool.

Most of the properties sought are along abandoned train tracks, but in some cases the proposed trail would cross or be near private property.

Less released a statement Thursday saying the appeals court can now be added to the list of local and state officials who have pushed back against MetroParks’ plan.

State Rep. Al Cutrona of Canfield, R-59e, drafted an amendment to the 2021 state budget bill prohibiting park districts from acquiring private property for recreational trails. His predecessor, former Rep. Don Manning, sponsored similar legislation before his death in March 2020.

“Yes [MetroParks officials] think it’s okay to try to take our property, why don’t they give up some of their property? Less wrote on Thursday. “It doesn’t have to be for a bike path, they can have a community swing set, playground, bird watching station or picnic table on their property if they think the eminent domain is such a good idea. I bet they don’t say any comments or more likely hide and won’t even respond.

MetroParks officials received the appeal decision on Thursday but declined to comment on it because they had not yet consulted with attorneys, executive director Aaron Young told Mahoning Matters.

The Parks proposal would have divided 6 acres of Less’ South Range Road property in Green Township with a 65 foot wide strip for the proposed trail, she told The Vindicator in March 2019.

MetroParks offered him $13,650 for the land, according to the opinion.

Less has long urged MetroParks to consider an alternate route along publicly owned Washingtonville Road.

In the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas, Less argued that MetroParks’ plans for the property and their reasons for acquiring it through eminent domain do not comply with state law. She asked the court to rule in her favor before taking the cases to trial, but was refused. She appealed to the Youngstown Seventh District Court of Appeals in July 2020.

Fourth District appellate judges assigned to the case after local judges recused themselves reviewed decades of litigation in Ohio – some of the cases dated back a century – but found few precedents that matched well to the estate’s prominent location in Green Township and the sought-after MetroParks bike path, according to the notice.

Under state lawpark districts may use eminent domain to acquire land for “conversion to forest reserves or natural resource conservation”, as long as it is for the general public welfare.

Fourth District Appeals Judges Jason Smith and Peter Abele ruled that park districts have the power to appropriate private land for the public good, the law suggests the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is the only agency capable of acquiring land specifically for recreational trails. They also considered whether a cycle path would meet the other requirements for appropriation – that it “serves a human need” or contributes to the well-being of the community or “the good enjoyment of one’s property”.

“We disagree with these principles, however, particularly when applied to a rural area where it appears that the public need is speculative at best and the harm to private landowners is substantial,” the authors wrote. judges.

“A lot of things provide public recreation: movie theaters, malls, bowling alleys, etc. However, just because these things provide recreation does not mean that they constitute the conservation of natural resources. We believe the same can be said of a bike path.

Fourth District Judge Michael Hess dissented, saying the appeals court lacked jurisdiction in the matter, since the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court did not issue an order. definitive” subject to appeal.

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, the courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and the University of Pittsburgh.