By Ed Runyan
A Trumbull County Common Pleas magistrate ruled against county officials in a civil suit filed in 2004 by 34 property owners, who fought being forced to pay for sewer extensions serving their neighborhoods.
The ruling says the property owners are not required to pay the cost of either sewer project because they were not properly notified of it.
Jim Brutz, an assistant county prosecutor who handles legal matters regarding sewers, criticized the ruling and warned that “sanitary-sewer construction in Trumbull County will cease to exist” if the ruling is allowed to stand.
Brutz said the ruling will jeopardize future sewer construction because it will prevent the use of reimbursable sewer extensions, which have been used by developers to build 90 percent of the sewer systems in the county.
Atty. Frank Bodor, who filed the suit, said if sanitary-sewer construction ceases as a result of the ruling, “it is only because the ... county refuses to follow the statutory basis for doing so under [Ohio law] and not because of the magistrate’s ruling, which upholds existing law.”
After nearly eight years, the matter went to trial July 16, 2012, before Magistrate Beth Anne Aurilio, who issued her decision July 2.
In it, she says Bodor’s clients in the Sable Creek neighborhood in Mineral Ridge and King-Graves areas of Vienna believe they were denied due process by the county when the county participated in sewer projects in their neighborhoods.
The county acts as a “middle man” between the entity that builds the sewer line and the property owners who later tie into it, the magistrate’s decision says.
“The county oversees the project to ensure compliance with installation regulations and also acts as a supervisor to protect the citizens from abusive practices,” it says.
In 2001 in Sable Creek, Gary Ventling of North Raccoon Road in Austintown entered into an agreement with the county sanitary engineer’s office for Ventling to extend sewers on St. Mary’s Drive, with Ventling being reimbursed later by any property owners who would tap into the sewer.
Ventling turned in a statement saying the sewers cost $103,460, and the Trumbull County Board of Health issued letters to Sable Creek residents advising them they needed to tap into the new sewer line and pay their share of the cost.
But the magistrate says the health department didn’t notify the homeowners of the cost. Ventling notified the homeowners in 2004 — 17 months after the sewer had been completed, which doesn’t satisfy the requirements of Ohio law, the ruling says.
Furthermore, the magistrate found problems with the project cost figures Ventling turned in, saying the sanitary engineer’s office failed to sufficiently oversee it.
The sanitary engineer’s office “deprived the Sable Creek [residents] of due process by approving the submitted costs of Ventling in an unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious manner, without notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” the decision says.
A different scenario played out in the King-Graves neighborhood near the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. Residents there were required to tie into a sewer line constructed by the sanitary engineer’s office. Part of it was paid for with federal grant money.
But the county commissioners did not have a public hearing on the $261,396 project, didn’t pass a resolution indicating intention to carry out the project and didn’t send letters to the affected property owners before the project was completed, the ruling says.
In the case of the Sable Creek residents, they will be permitted to tie into the sewer line at no cost. In the case of the King-Graves residents, they will not be required to pay for the sewers they were forced to tie into.
The parties involved are granted an opportunity to object to the magistrate’s decision, and those objections could result in modifications to the decision by Judge W. Wyatt McKay, who is assigned to the case along with Magistrate Aurilio.
Some Howland residents were part of the suit in the beginning but are not anymore.