Eminent domain case headed to Ohio Supreme Court

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rails to trails path
The Mill Creek MetroParks Bikeway in Mahoning County.

An eminent domain case over an abandoned railroad bed in Mahoning County is headed to the Ohio Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled in favor of a landowner.

The case stems from Mill Creek MetroPark’s plan to expand its rails-to-trails bike path 6 miles through rural Green Township. The 7th District Court of Appeals recently ruled that the park district did not have the power of eminent domain when it sued to get a permanent easement on the railroad bed that runs through Diane Less’s property. 

Aaron Young, executive director of Mill Creek MetroParks, told Farm and Dairy the park district board of commissioners decided May 9, after meeting with the district’s legal counsel, to appeal the appeals court decision to the highest court in the state.

“To abandon the issue at this point would come at some financial liability,” he said.
In addition to a years-long, costly legal battle with landowners, at stake in this case is $3 million in federal grant money the park district received to fund the expansion of the bike path.

The appeals court explored the question of whether the creation of a public bike path constituted the “conservation of natural resources of the state” and was “conducive to the general welfare,” which would allow the park district to appropriate private land under Ohio Revised Code Statute 1545.11. 

While past Ohio cases found that the creation of the bike paths and other recreational trails met those marks, it wasn’t the case “when applied to a rural area where it appears the public need is speculative at best and the harm to the private property owners is great.”

The appeals court also said the trial court appeared not to have considered that question and just accepted the fact that the park district passed a resolution stating public demand as sufficient public purpose. 

Background

Less was one of several landowners that fought the park district’s use of eminent domain for a bike path, but she’s the first who has had a ruling in her favor.

Landowners have been fighting the park district for more than three years over control of the abandoned railroad bed. The park district wants to extend its 11-mile rails-to-trails bikeway — the Mill Creek MetroParks Bikeway — to the south. The extension is part of a larger project to create a Great Ohio Lake-to-River Greenway, a system of county trails that would connect Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

Beginning in fall 2018, Mill Creek MetroParks sued a dozen landowner in Mahoning County to secure permanent easements for the trail. Some of the landowners have settled with the park district out of court, and some have been decided by trial. There are six cases still outstanding with five landowners, Young said, including Less’s case.

Court ruling

Less’s argument focused on the park district’s authority to take private property under the language of Ohio Revised Code Statute 1545.11.

The board of commissioners argued it established the public need for a bike path in two resolutions, one in 1993 to create the path and one in 2018 to expand it. The 1993 resolution stated “the public interest demanded the construction of a bicycle path on a railroad right-of-way.” 

The 2018 resolution laid out the need for the expansion of the path by saying it “will provide local and regional users with a safe, uniformly designed, multi-use, off-road trail facility dedicated for public transportation and recreational purposes.”

In a 38-page opinion, the court found neither of the park district’s resolutions connected the demand for a bike path with the general welfare of the public or the conservation of natural resources.

Other cases

Farmers Mike and Barb Cameron also have an eminent domain case sitting before the 7th District Court of Appeals. They filed for a dismissal last summer after a new amendment to state law prevented a park district from taking land for a recreational trail. The Mill Creek bike path would split the Cameron farm, separating much of their pasture and fields from their house and barn.

The Camerons appealed after Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony D’Apolito ruled in November the newly enacted legislation did not apply to the Camerons’ case as there was no language stating the legislation should be applied retroactively. 

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

Related content:

Mahoning County farmers fight eminent domain for bike trail
Mahoning County farmers want eminent domain case dismissed
New eminent domain legislation more focused

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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