Mahoning Co. farmers want eminent domain case dismissed

Language in budget bill could help them fight bike path

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The Cameron farm as seen from the railroad bed in the valley below. The railroad bed is the subject of an eminent domain lawsuit filed by Mill Creek MetroParks against the Camerons. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Mahoning County farmers involved in an eminent domain case over a proposed bike path filed for a dismissal after language included in Ohio’s recently signed operating budget “leveled the playing field.”

Attorneys for Mike and Barb Cameron asked for the suit, filed by Mill Creek MetroParks, to be dismissed on July 6, citing language in the budget bill that would prevent a park district from taking land for a recreational trail. The filing came less than two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

“It’s given us more time,” Mike Cameron told Farm and Dairy. “It levels the playing field for us right now … I never lost any sleep over it, but you shouldn’t have to fight for what’s yours.”

The Camerons have been battling the park district for nearly three years for control of an abandoned railroad bed that runs through their farm.

The park district wants to extend its 11-mile rails-to-rails bikeway — the Mill Creek MetroParks Bikeway — by 6 miles 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.

The fight

The Camerons are one of few landowners left battling the park district over the bike path that’s routed through their property. The bike path would split the Cameron farm, separating much of their pasture and fields from their house and barn. They converted from running a dairy farm to raising crops and beef cattle about five years ago. The farm has been in the family for four generations.

Beginning in fall 2018, Mill Creek MetroParks sued nearly a dozen landowners 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.

The park offered the Camerons $35,700 for rights to about 6.5 acres, according to the lawsuit. The Camerons were left with many questions about how they could continue to operate their farm with a bike trail running straight through it.

But they are feeling more hopeful now since the Gov. Mike DeWine signed the two-year operating budget on July 1. An amendment in the budget bill, advanced by state Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, prohibits a park district located in a county with between 220,000 and 240,000 residents from appropriating property for a recreational trail.

Mahoning County has a population of 238,823, according to the 2010 census.

“I feel good. This is a win for us,” Mike Cameron said. “But it’s a band aid. It’s not over by any means.”

Cutrona took up the fight after the sudden death of state Rep. Don Manning, R-New Middletown. Manning introduced two pieces of legislation to help locals fight eminent domain after hearing about the situation in Mahoning County. Cutrona was appointed to fill Manning’s seat, and was elected in November 2020.

Cutrona said, in a statement, that he introduced the language to protect residents from government overreach.

“This is a common sense proposal, it’s been debated, and it’s time to get it done,” he said, in a statement. “This will better protect property rights, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Park response

Aaron Young, executive director for Mill Creek MetroParks declined to comment on the case, due to pending litigation, but shared a statement the park district released after the budget bill was signed.

“It is short-sighted legislative provisions, such as the targeted, unconstitutional eminent domain provision that was included in the recently approved state budget, that continue to keep the Mahoning Valley community from being viewed in the same progressive manner as Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo,” the statement said.

“Mill Creek MetroParks will continue to work diligently in providing Mahoning County with the finest in park, recreational, educational and open space facilities moving forward, just as we have for the past 130 years.”

In an interview with Mahoning Matters, Young suggested the park district would fight Cutrona’s amendment.

Magistrate James Melone ordered July 7 that the Cameron trial be continued until September, pending disposition on the pending motion. The park district has until Aug. 6 to file a brief in opposition.

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

Related content:

Mahoning County farmers fight eminent domain for bike trail

New eminent domain legislation is more focused

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