By Jordyn Grzelewski
Less than 24 hours after losing a referendum on zone changes that were approved for construction of a TJX HomeGoods distribution center in Lordstown, village residents who are opposed to the changes filed a complaint about the referendum in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.
The complaint filed Wednesday afternoon seeks “declaratory judgment, a temporary restraining order, and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief with respect to the unconstitutionality” of sections of state legislation that expedited the referendum. It was filed by Atty. David Nichol of Akron on behalf of “Committee of Lordstown Concerned Residents,” a group of about two dozen village residents who live near the planned project site.
TJX plans to build a $170 million facility on Hallock Young and Ellsworth Bailey Roads, an operation the company says will employ about 1,000 people within five years of opening. Opponents of the plan are against the use of land that was zoned residential.
The 14-page complaint lists the village of Lordstown and the state of Ohio as defendants.
At the heart of the complaint is House Bill 292, which Gov. John Kasich signed into law in June. The bill was written by state legislators when it became clear a referendum on the zone changes was likely. The legislation pushed up the referendum, which normally would have occurred in November, to this Tuesday, when 52 percent of registered voters OK’d it by a 77-23 percent margin.
Trumbull County Board of Elections officials noted the special election drew a strong turnout. By comparison, less than 25 percent of registered Trumbull County voters cast ballots in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.
The complaint challenges two sections of the law, saying they violate sections of the Ohio Constitution that state no bill “shall contain more than one subject” and that all laws “shall have a uniform operation throughout the state.”
“The final, enacted version of House Bill 292 amended numerous unrelated statutory provisions and covers a myriad of unrelated subjects, including the determination of residency for tax purposes, appropriations and provides authorization and conditions for the operation of various state programs and Section 12 [of the bill] ... eliminates the requirements that a majority vote by members of council of a village is required to rezone residential property for industrial use,” the complaint states.
The filing challenges sections 12 and 16 of the bill.
Section 12 narrows the scope of the legislation to apply to “a village whose legislative authority, during the period beginning May 15, 2018 and ending Sept. 1, 2018, considers an ordinance that would make zoning or other changes to accommodate a new use of real property located in the village that the legislative authority determines is likely to bring at least 500 new jobs and least $50 million in investment to the village.” It also spells out the referendum process.
Section 16 declares Section 12 “to be an emergency measure for the immediate preservation of the public pease, health, and safety.”
The complaint also argues House Bill 292 violates the Ohio Constitution’s Uniformity Clause, stating, “Sections 12 and 16 were tailored to the TJX project and, specifically, to permit less than a majority of village council members to approve a zoning change to permit the construction of an individual warehouse on the seven parcels of residential property at issue. These provisions will not have application in another village, let alone operate uniformly throughout the state of Ohio.”
The filing also seeks to establish the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the case to court, saying they live nearby and their “use and enjoyment of their property will be severely and negatively impacted.” It also argues the project will “present and [sic] eye sore and cause storm water runoff” down a hill near their properties.
Village Mayor Arno Hill, a supporter of the project, said he was not entirely surprised by the court filing.
“I’ve heard there was a chance this might happen,” he said. “It doesn’t take anything away from the victory. I’m still glad it passed.”
He noted that opponents of the plans pushed for a referendum.
“They said, ‘Let people have a say.’ People had a say and they didn’t like it,” he said. “If their side would have won and the referendum wouldn’t have passed, this never would have happened.”
Hill said he plans to consult with the village’s legal team on the matter today.
A temporary restraining order hearing on the request is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday. Judge Peter Kontos is assigned the case.
Speaking outside the Trumbull County Courthouse Wednesday, state Rep. Glenn Holmes, D-63rd of McDonald, said he was “comfortable with what we did in the Senate and the House” and disappointed that the individuals filing the legal action would not accept the “mandate by 70 percent of their neighbors” in Tuesday’s election.
State Sen . Sean O’Brien, D-32nd of Bazetta, was also at the Courthouse and said he believes the company is “going to move forward until a judge tells them otherwise.”
He added, “I think the constitutionality is there, so I’m not worried” about the legal filing.
Contributor: Staff reporter Ed Runyan