Grand Lake St. Marys: ODNR says it complied; opponents not so sure

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COLUMBUS — The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says it has fully complied with all aspects of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Dec. 4 order that required the state agency to expedite the appraisal and compensation process to landowners near Grand Lake St. Mary’s.

Late last year, the high court found ODNR in contempt for failing to act timely on appraising property damaged from flooding due to the widening of the Grand Lake St. Marys spillway. Roughly 87 property owners are involved in some way.

ODNR says it has filed appropriation cases for the remaining parcels in the litigation.

“We recognize our responsibility to comply with the Court’s order and are doing everything in our power to expedite these cases,” said ODNR Director James Zehringer, in a released statement. “However, paying for land that doesn’t flood, and paying too much for flooding not caused by the spillway modifications, is simply wasting taxpayers’ money.

“Our commitment remains to Ohio taxpayers, which is why we have taken a careful and thoughtful approach to how we handle these cases,” he said.

Opponents not happy

Bruce Ingram, attorney for the landowners and a partner Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, disagrees with Zehringer, and said progress is still lagging.“It (ODNR) did make fair settlement offers to two landowners — who promptly accepted the offers unconditionally,” Ingram said.  “Instead of paying them the money they agreed to pay them, ODNR instead proceeded to sue them in court as if the settlement never happened.”

ODNR filed a declaratory judgment in late December, two weeks before the court-mandated deadline. As of mid-February, ODNR says it had complied with the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling and completed all of the 45 necessary appraisals, well before the required deadline, and had filed all of the corresponding court cases prior to the 120-day deadline given by the court.

A Notice of Compliance has been delivered to the Ohio Supreme Court notifying the court of the department’s actions and compliance.

ODNR says it has made fair settlement offers to all of the property owners whose parcels were not included in the declaratory judgment, and four have accepted the department’s offer and will be settled outside of court. The department says it will not put in place deposits for any of the remaining cases, but rather secure the funding independently at a time when the court cases are determined.

But Ingram, who specializes in issues of eminent domain and land use, said a cash deposit is required.

“The Ohio constitution and the Ohio condemnation law requires that  a cash deposit of compensation be made by the state of the fair market value of the property it has taken,” he said. “ODNR admits to this value because it was set by its own appraiser. “Nonetheless, ODNR has refused to file the deposits as to any owner who was among the 84 landowners who sought and obtained an order of contempt against ODNR in the Ohio Supreme Court.”

Who’s at fault?

ODNR says the landowner’s attorneys “have repeatedly stalled this case asking for multiple continuances, which has delayed the next case by more than four months.”

But Ingram says the case was continued only because “ODNR withheld its appraisal report from the landowners so that the trial could not go forward as scheduled.

“It’s (ODNR’s) suggestion that the landowners were responsible for this delay are false and reprehensible.”

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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