By Jordyn Grzelewski
A judge on Friday struck down a legal challenge to a project slated to bring a $160 million HomeGoods distribution center to the village of Lords-town.
After losing a referendum on the rezoning of 290 acres of residential land for the project, a group of two dozen village residents filed a lawsuit against the village and state challenging the constitutionality of sections of a state law that expedited the referendum.
In an 11-page judgement entry filed Friday, Judge Peter Kontos of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court ruled that the plaintiffs requesting a permanent injunction and declaratory judgement “have failed to meet their burden and have not demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that House Bill 292 is unconstitutional” under either of the clauses cited by the plaintiffs.
The judge further found the plaintiffs’ claims are moot due to the timing of the lawsuit.
He denied their requests for permanent injunctive relief and declaratory judgement and dismissed the complaint, paving the way for the project to again move forward after numerous roadblocks.
The decision was applauded by numerous elected officials.
“I applaud Judge Kontos for ruling to allow the TJX project to proceed. After many months of meetings, debates, campaigns and litigation, it is finally time to get construction underway,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th. “This new facility will be a huge victory for Lordstown and our entire community.”
State Rep. Sean O’Brien of Bazetta, D-32nd, who helped get the amendments related to the project into HB 292, said he was “very pleased” with the ruling, “as it means we can now move ahead with bringing over 1,000 badly needed jobs to our region, which has been hit hard by job losses.”
A statement signed by the three Trumbull County commissioners called the ruling “yet another critical step forward seeing this project come to fruition.”
“Our board is unified in our commitment to future economic development and growth,” they said. “We remain prepared to work with our economic development partners and the school district to incentivize long-term investment on the part of TJX.”
Controversy over the HomeGoods project arose earlier this year when it was announced publicly. Some village residents objected to the planned location on residential land on Hallock Young and Ellsworth Bailey roads. Concerns also were raised about the project’s proximity to hundreds of nearby residences.
Opponents of the plans successfully petitioned for a referendum on village council’s 3-2 vote to rezone the land from residential to industrial. An amendment to HB 292 pushed up the referendum to August.
The Aug. 21 referendum passed with 76 percent of the vote. The lawsuit was filed the next day.
The lawsuit challenged two sections of HB 292, claiming they were unconstitutional.
In his ruling, Judge Kontos pointed to the timing of the plaintiffs’ filing as problematic, citing precedent that states: “When an election has passed, the action for extraordinary relief is moot.”
He noted that HB 292 went into effect in June, the zone changes were approved in June and the referendum petitions were filed in July.
“Plaintiffs did not file this lawsuit until Aug. 22, 2018, the day after the special election,” Judge Kontos wrote. “Only after the village and the electorate expended the time, effort, and public funds in orchestrating the special election, and the electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor” of the zone changes did the plaintiffs file suit.
“Plaintiffs have failed in their burden to show that they acted with the diligence required,” the judge wrote.
The judge also refuted the plaintiffs’ claims that Sections 12 and 16 of HB 292 are unconstitutional.
He also found their claims that they would suffer irreparable harm, which is a standard they would have to meet to receive injunctive relief, were based on “mere speculation and conjecture,” given that no site plans have been approved for the project.
The plaintiffs and their attorney could not be reached to comment Friday.