Supreme Court supports landowners in water dispute
All 50 to 60 clients lost their wells, including at least five farms.
By MICHELE C. HLADIK
COLUMBUS -- Landowners have property rights to ground water under their property and are entitled to compensation when government interferes with that right, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
"The well-being of Ohio homeowners, the stability of Ohio's economy, and the reliability of real estate transfers require the protection of groundwater rights," Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote for the Supreme Court. "We therefore hold that Ohio landowners have a property interest in the groundwater underlying their land and that governmental interference with that right can constitute an unconstitutional taking."
The case evolved from two incidents in Ohio which pitted residents in the village of Sterling against the city of Rittman and residents of northeast Franklin County against the city of Columbus.
In the Rittman case, Henry McNamara and other Sterling residents reportedly lost the use of wells at their homes when the city bought land and installed a well field that pumped 500,000 to 750,000 gallons of water per day out of a local aquifer to meet needs of Rittman residents.
According to Columbus-area attorney Steve Edwards, who represents the residents, the case has flown through the state and local courts with no success and was going through the federal process when it came under question by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The appellate court then brought the question to the Ohio Supreme Court.
"It's been 12 years we've been battling this," Edwards said after the decision's release.
Edwards says the case involves 50 to 60 clients who all lost their wells in this case. At least five of those involved were farms that depend heavily on their wells for support of their farming operations, he said.
"You can't run a farm on bottled water," he said.
He added he thinks Pfeifer addressed the issue in the decision.
"Ohio has its own unique water resources and water needs," Pfeifer wrote.
"More than 700,000 Ohioans have their own wells to meet their entire water needs; industry uses more than 240 million gallons of groundwater per day, and Ohio's farmers use approximately 2 billion gallons of groundwater per year," he continued, referencing a Ground Water Protection Council Report to Congress in 2000.
Edwards said he is pleased and surprised with the Supreme Court's decision and is working on contacting all of the clients involved in the case to share the news.
"This gives a layer of protection to people who depend on their wells," he said of the decision.
According to Edwards, the case will go back to the federal appellate court and could be set for a trial.
He and his clients have been ready for trial since the case began its original trek through state courts, he said.
Edwards said he couldn't give a dollar amount, but his clients were looking for compensation for drilling of new wells, poor water quality and the need for bottled water, among other issues.
North Canton attorney Jack Baker, who represents the city of Rittman in the matter, said the decision was "adverse to municipalities."
According to Baker, many municipalities get the water to service their residents this way. However, he added not all situations are the same.
The issue is also one of national importance, he said, adding, "Every state wrestles with this problem."
Baker said he is not sure of the future of the case and plans to discuss those options with his clients.
"At some point and time the case has to be resolved," he said. "The city of Rittman would like to do what's fair to all."
He suggested an agreement is a possible course of action.
Edwards said he isn't sure about a settlement on the issue and said the two sides hadn't started talking about one yet.
"Anything is possible," he said.