A proposed bike trail would run through the middle of Michael Cameron's Mahoning Valley farm. It would landlock 30 acres of Diane Less' property, and run 44-feet from Tom Hough's door.
None of them like it. None of them want to give their land to Mill Creek MetroParks. But none of them have a choice.
The Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment lets governments force the sale or easement of private land for "public good." Usually, that means a road or highway, but Ohio lets park districts use it when they want to build recreational trails.
The farmers say the whole process has been awful and unfair. The metropark says it has bent over backwards for the landowners. And a pair of Republican state representatives think the whole mess is a sign the state needs to rethink how eminent domain works.
House Bill 63 would let local governments (city councils, township trustees) veto eminent domain takings when they are for recreational trails. A property owner would have to petition for the veto in writing, and the municipality could decide at any point before a court allowed the taking of a property.
"We all love our recreational trails and our parks in our districts," Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, said. "It’s also important to realize just how devastating they can be for the people who own the land."
His bill would give people a free way to object. The current method of fighting an eminent domain case is in court, and that's expensive. Less said she's spent more than $15,000 on her case.
"We’re not saying they can never put a bike trail, but let's leave it up to the local people to decide if they want it," Cutrona said.
Park district boards and commissions aren't elected. They're appointed by their local probate judges, and they can't be voted out of office.
"It surprised me," Stark County resident Josh Staley said. "A park district is probably one of the most powerful governing bodies in a state. For unelected officials to have that power is quite scary."
His 80-acre farm has a railroad bed running through it too, and while his county park director hasn't come knocking yet, he knows it's just a matter of time.
"I’d like to keep it for myself. We bought the land. We’d like to use it for our purposes. We like the privacy," Staley said. "We just feel it's not right for them to be able to take it because other people in cities not even close to us feel it's their right to use for it a trail."
Parks: Eminent domain is a useful tool
But Woody Woodward, executive director of the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association, said this change would cause statewide problems in an attempt to solve a local problem. Eminent domain is rarely used by parks departments. This is the first case he's seen in 12 years with the association.
"This has almost been characterized as park districts want to gobble up property by eminent domain, and nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
What eminent domain does is push out-of-state companies to the bargaining table. For example, a railroad company owned a tract of land in Medina County that appraised for around $7,000 an acre. Woodward said the company offered to sell for $100,000 an acre, but the threat of eminent domain brought them down to a more reasonable number.
"We could not agree more that the tool of eminent domain is to be used as a last resort, and that’s where we are," Mill Creek MetroParks Director Aaron Young said.
Young, who stepped into the middle of this Mahoning Valley fight when he took over the district in 2015, said he's offered farm equipment crossings, fences to protect cattle and a number of other accommodations to the property owners.
"We don’t want to be a bad neighbor, and we don’t want our neighbors upset with us," Young said. "We’re confident that the process of eminent domain and going through the courts will demonstrate that we have been just that."
Ohio's forefathers were smart enough to keep politics away from its park districts, Young said. You can see it in the way they created their boards. They're not political appointees by design. Giving local politicians veto power would destroy that.
Akron, Cincinnati, Dublin, Upper Arlington and the Ohio Municipal League all expressed opposition to a nearly identical version of the bill that failed to pass last year. They called it a violation of home rule.
Landowners: Eminent domain shouldn't be used for parks
The Mahoning Valley farmers disagreed.
They aren't convinced a recreational trail is a good enough reason for the government to take anyone's property. And if Ohio decides eminent domain still belongs in a park district's toolbox, they want a low-cost way to argue against it – especially when districts pay attorneys fees with taxpayer dollars.
"They’re suing us with our money for our land. It’s insane," Less said. "I'm not against eminent domain when it's truly needed, and I'm not against bike trails when the property is acquired through legitimate means."
She's convinced Mill Creek MetroParks would have "found" another route for their bike trail years ago if they didn't have the power of eminent domain.
"It leaves a bad taste in people's mouths," Staley said. "To cut a path through someone’s property for someone else’s recreation when that land owner doesn’t want it, I don’t see where that’s ever necessary."