SALEM, Ohio — State legislation that would limit the powers of eminent domain is facing opposition from a number of local governments and recreation groups.
The bill came to be after Ohio State Rep. Don Manning, R-New Middletown, heard about constituents in Mahoning County that had eminent domain lawsuits filed against them to secure permanent easements for the land for an expansion of the Mill Creek MetroParks Bikeway.
Opponents of House Bill 288 testified before the House Civil Justice Committee that the bill would take away their “tool of last resort” in creating trails that benefit the communities they run through in a number of ways.
HB 288 would prevent the government from using eminent domain for a recreational trail, which includes a public trail used for bicycling, hiking, horseback riding and the like.
After four hearings before the committee, a staffer with Manning’s office said they’re working on a sub-bill to address committee member concerns — specifically, about local control and whether the bill would just address an isolated issue in Mahoning County.
A necessary tool
Opponents of the legislation include Cleveland Metroparks, the City of Cincinnati, the City of Akron, Columbus and Franklin County Metroparks, Ohio Municipal League, Ohio Mayors Alliance, Ohio Parks and Recreations Association, Ohio Bicycle Federation, Ohio to Erie Trail, Ohio Trails Partnership and six others.
The opponents say while they rarely, if ever, use eminent domain, it’s a significant tool for them to keep during negotiations or to take control of abandoned land. Taking away this tool would waste public tax dollars used in planning and developing trails.
Trails add value to communities and provide more than just recreation opportunities, said Jason Segedy, director of planning and urban development for Akron.
“Trails like the Towpath Trail are increasingly being used as a nonrecreational means of transportation, particularly by lower-income residents without access to a motor vehicle,” he said in his testimony.
Those opposed also spoke out against the legislation as being a solution to an isolated local issue, not a statewide issue.
Not an isolated incident. In Mahoning County, Mill Creek’s proposed trail through a rural stretch of Green Township, following on old railroad right-of-way, and would split many properties.
“Several farm owners are facing the very real possibility that acres of their land are about to be cut off from the rest of their property,” Manning said during his testimony before the committee.
He brought the legislation after hearing about a similar situation in Stark County.
Dan Dickerhoof and Josh Staley, both Stark County residents, testified alongside residents from Mahoning County at one of the committee meetings.
The two men testified about how Stark Parks threatened eminent domain against landowners.
Dickerhoof told Farm and Dairy the park’s Iron Horse Trail expansion will cut him off from about 10 acres of fields he farms. He inherited the land from his father, who bought the farm in 1970, three years after the railroad abandoned the line running through the property.
Dickerhoof said they cleaned up the old railroad bed and reclaimed it, under the understanding that they owned the property since the railroad ditched it.
Bob Fonte, executive director for Stark Parks, said the park district purchased the railroad right-of-way from the railroad in 1997.
“They approached us to purchase the right-of-way,” he said. “We put it in our inventory while we developed our county trails master plan.”
The case eventually went to court in 2017 with Dickerhoof arguing he owned the land under adverse possession. A judge and jury in two separate trials ruled in favor of Stark Parks. Dickerhoof appealed, but lost.
Coming to terms
Fonte told Farm and Dairy that Stark Parks is opposed to HB 288 because it will diminish the park district’s negotiating power. He called the bill “short sighted,” saying in the 100-year history of the park district, they’ve never abused the eminent domain power.
The park district has 120 miles of trail, much of it created from donated right-of-ways, he said. Proximity to trails increases property values, he said.
“It’s an economic development tool to have these types of community resources,” he said.
Often times people who were impacted by a trail being put in come to find that it’s not as disruptive or troublesome as they initially believed it would be.
Fonte said they worked with farmers when they built the Towpath Trail on the western side of the county. They’ve put up fence, built tunnels to allow animals to cross the path unimpeded and closed sections of the trial during hunting season.
“Very few people after the trail is open continue to complain,” he said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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