SALEM, Ohio — Mike and Barb Cameron’s farm is far from everything and can’t be seen from any road. That’s just how they like it.
Their home, where they raise beef cattle and grow field crops, is nestled on a slope above Cherry Valley Run and an old railroad bed.
That old railroad bed is pitting the Camerons and other farmers against Youngstown’s Mill Creek MetroParks — a dispute that is already disturbing the peace and quiet the Camerons have long enjoyed on the farm.
Planned bike trail
Mill Creek MetroParks wants to put a paved bike path on the railroad to extend its 11-mile rails-to-trails bikeway by 6.4 miles to the south, and it is using eminent domain to get access to the land it needs.
“The train came through here, but it never came up off the tracks,” Mike Cameron said. “We never had trouble with the train. With people, you have trouble.”
The Camerons are among nearly a dozen landowners in Mahoning County to have an eminent domain lawsuit filed against them since November 2018 in the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas to secure permanent easements for the land for phase three of the Mill Creek MetroParks Bikeway.
The extension is part of a larger project to create the 100-mile Great Ohio Lake-to-River Greenway, a system of county trails that would connect Lake Erie to the Ohio River.
The landowners may get help from a new piece of state legislation. Ohio State Rep. Don Manning, R-New Middletown, introduced a bill June 18 that would revise state law to prevent the government from using eminent domain for a recreational trail, like a bike trail. House Bill 288 had 10 cosponsors on the day it was introduced.
The Ohio Farm Bureau supports the legislation, said Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau director of media relations.
Manning told Farm and Dairy that after he was made aware of the issue, he met with Mill Creek officials to discuss the situation and see if a compromise could be reached.
“I was told point blank that ‘The time for talking is over. We’re taking this property,’” he said. “I didn’t like that answer at all. It’s a prime example of government overreach.”
Manning attached an emergency clause that will put it ahead of other legislation and put it into effect as soon as Gov. Mike DeWine signs it, should it get to his desk. The bill was referred to the civil justice committee on June 25.
Last best hope
The bill is the only hope they have to keep their land intact, Mike Cameron said. They’re fighting the lawsuit, but he’s been told that the only thing they can do is argue over land price.
The park offered the Camerons $35,700 for rights to their 6.5-acre property, according to the lawsuit. The Camerons would still own the land, pay taxes on it and be responsible for any damage done to the bike path while operating the farm.
Until two years ago, the Camerons operated a dairy farm, milking between 80 and 100 cows.
They have run the farm for the last 25 years, but the land has been in Mike Cameron’s family for four generations. He spent summers on the farm when his grandparents owned it, eventually moving there when he turned 16. Back then, the railroad was still running.
“You learned as a young boy before you let the cows across to listen for the train,” Mike Cameron said.
The old railroad bed sits about 300 feet from the Camerons’ house and barn, separating them from much of their pasture and fields on the other side.
Mike Cameron has a lot of questions about how he’ll run his farm if the trail goes in. New fence will be needed to keep his cows off the bike path. And he wonders how he will run equipment and animals from one side of the trail to the other.
“If we damage it when we cross it, we have to repair it,” he said. “I still have a lot of pasture on that side. I need to get back and forth.”
More people, more trouble
They also wonder about liability and safety issues. That’s something other neighbors are worried about as well.
David and Gerry Roller, who live north of the Camerons, are concerned about people going onto the former strip mine they own that sits along the old railroad tracks.
The property is across the road from their farm, and the railroad bed runs the length of it. Just up a steep, shale-covered hill from the tracks are two lakes, both about 30 feet deep.
“If you fell in, you’d be in trouble,” David Roller said.
Gerry Roller said they’ve had trouble over the years with people going to fish or hang out there, thinking it’s public land. They’ve posted the property, but the signs have been torn or shot down, she said.
The Rollers worry it will only get worse with the bike path running next to the lakes.
A long time coming
The idea for a bikeway that follows the old railroad corridor began nearly 30 years ago.
The railroad was constructed in the 1860s as the Niles & Lisbon Branch of the Erie Railroad. Service on the line, however, was discontinued and the tracks and ties were removed in the 1980s.
Steve Avery, park planning and operations director, said Mill Creek went through a planning process in 1990, shortly after it was formed as a county-based agency. The plan recommended converting the abandoned rail line to a bike trail.
The first two phases of the bikeway were built and opened to the public in 2000 and 2001. A feasibility study was done and recommended the third phase of the trail continue to follow the railroad, Avery said.
Other route options were considered, but following the railroad impacted fewer property owners and made the trail accessible to more users than just bicyclists, he said.
Putting the trail on Washingtonville Road, a north-south road to the east of the proposed trail extension, would require installing a dedicated bike lane on the road, Avery said. This would mean buying property along the fronts of dozens of properties to widen the road.
Using the railroad impacts 13 property owners, he said.
“There are a lot of considerations that went into the preferred alignment, like safety, the amount of users.” Avery said.
Avery said they held two public meetings — in 2012 and 2016 — about the extension and offered to meet with property owners individually around the times of those meetings.
Construction for the path is projected to cost $3.5 million, with 80% of that coming from a Federal Highway Administration grant. Avery said construction could begin as soon as July 1, 2020, after the federal funding becomes available.
From lake to river
The contested bikeway is considered a key part of the proposed 100-mile Great Ohio Lake-to-River Greenway, which would link Lake Erie to the Ohio River.
The existing Mill Creek bikeway is a 10-foot-wide paved path that begins at the line of Trumbull and Mahoning counties, near County Line Road, where it connects with the 4-mile-long Niles Greenway trail.
From the county line, it continues south to Western Reserve Road. The proposed extension goes to High Street, near Route 14, in Washingtonville. The trail will then connect to the Little Beaver Creek Greenway trail.
More than 75 miles of lake to river trail has already been built in Mahoning, Columbiana, Trumbull and Ashtabula counties.
Who has the power?
The park already owns 1.8 miles of the rail line on the proposed new section. The board of commissioners voted in September 2018 to acquire the property for the remaining 4.6 miles, through eminent domain if necessary.
The Ohio Revised Code gives a park board power to acquire land for “forest reserves and for the conservation of the natural resources of the state including streams, lakes, submerged lands and swampland, and to those ends may create parks, parkways, forest reservations and other reservations.”
In the lawsuits, Mill Creek said it is acquiring the land for “public transportation and recreation purposes.”
Diane Less, who is one of the defendants, is contesting how the organization is defining the use of eminent domain. She said she was offered $13,000 for the easement for 2 acres. A bike path would cut off access to a 6-acre lot on her farm.
Less argued in a motion to dismiss that the board does not have the power to take land for public transportation or create a bikeway, under the portion of the law. Her motion will be considered July 31 by Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge John Durkin.
“Eminent domain has a true purpose,” Less told Farm and Dairy. “You have to have highways. You have to have hospitals. But a bike trail to benefit a handful of people?”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Eminent domain explained
What is eminent domain?
It is the power of the federal, state and local governments to take private property for public use.
What is public use defined as?
Utility facilities, roads, sewers, water lines, public schools, public and private higher education facilities, public parks, government buildings, port authority transportation facilities, projects by public utilities, similar facilities and uses of the land.
How does the process work?
The government must deliver a “notice of intent to acquire” the property and a “good faith offer” to purchase the property, based on its fair market value.
If after 30 days the state and property owner can’t agree on a price for the property, a jury decides. The state can file an appropriation lawsuit and a jury trial will decide the price.
Where does the government get this power from anyway?
The U.S. Constitution, in the Fifth Amendment, and the Ohio Constitution, in Article 1, Section 19.
The Ohio Revised Code, or the book of state laws, specifically gives various government agencies power to take land for certain uses.
Sources: Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Ohio Revised Code
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