Thursday, December 6th, 2012
State must pay more quickly
Court finds ODNR in contempt for slow action in spillway suit
By Nancy Allen
GRAND LAKE - The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday found the state in contempt for moving too slowly to compensate 87 landowners for increased flooding on their land caused by Grand Lake's West Bank spillway.
The justices, just one day after the hearing, ruled the state must complete land appraisals within 90 days and file motions for compensation within four months in Mercer County Common Pleas Court for the majority of the cases.
The landowners own 91 parcels, mostly farmland, totaling about 2,400 acres downstream from the state-owned and operated spillway.
For 20 parcels - which involve flooding above the 2003 level upon which the case is based - the state is ordered to institute declaratory judgement actions in the local court within 30 days to determine the landowners' rights. The court denied a request by landowners to pay attorney fees and a fine associated with the hearing.
The justices, in a 5-2 vote, said the landowners had shown "clear and convincing evidence" the state was in contempt of the court's Dec. 1, 2011, decision ordering compensation.
The state has only filed motions for compensation hearings for eight of the 53 cases. Six were filed within the last week and the other two were in August.
Bruce Ingram, the attorney for the landowners, on Wednesday said his clients have been vindicated.
"By ordering the compensation cases to commence in 120 days, the deliberate foot dragging and delay by ODNR ends today," he said. "The landowners look forward to their day in court where compensation will finally be awarded for the state's illegal seizure of their land."
In a written statement, the state promised to use all resources available to speed up the process.
"We will take all the necessary steps to accelerate the pace at which we are doing exactly what the Ohio Supreme Court asked us to do originally," ODNR spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said.
Justices Judith Lanzinger and Evelyn Lundberg Stratton dissented, saying the state has been moving forward and that a settlement offer last year showed the state was making an effort.
The state withdrew a settlement offer of $24 million, about $5,000 per acre, when presented with a counteroffer of about $27 million, which included an additional $3 million for business owners and homeowners without farms.
The cost of the settlement will go up the longer appraisals take because land values in the area are rising, justices noted during Tuesday's hearing. Ingram on Wednesday said the final settlements could be closer to $50 million.
The state's attorney, Michael Stokes, has said it was extraordinarily difficult to find appraisers who were qualified and willing to do the work and that the state expected to have all cases filed in the local court by the end of 2013.