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Budget bill set to adapt parks’ right to buy private land

The state budget bill approved by the House and Senate Monday night and sent to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine would prohibit a park district in Mahoning County from using eminent domain to create recreational trails, such as the MetroParks bikeway.

The executive director of the Mill Creek MetroParks, however, says the language could be on shaky ground.

State Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, announced in a news release Monday that the eminent domain language made it into the budget bill. The new state budget must be in place by today.

“This is a common sense proposal, it’s been debated and it’s time to get it done,” Cutrona said. “This will better protect property rights and it’s the right thing to do.”

Cutrona’s proposal was introduced in April when he inserted it into the House version of the budget bill. The language relates to trails used for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, ski touring, canoeing or other non-motorized forms of recreational travel.

The language prohibits use of eminent domain only in a county of 220,000 to 240,000 people as reported in the most recent available federal decennial census. Mahoning County’s population was 238,787 during the 2010 census and was estimated at 228,683 in 2019, according to the Census Bureau.

The amendment, if approved by DeWine, would be in effect for five years.

“It gives us more time to work out the challenges with bike trails and hopefully come up with a solution,” Cutrona said in April. Zen Taylor, legislative aide to Cutrona, said Tuesday the language now in the budget bill did not change from what Cutrona proposed in April.

Aaron Young, executive director of the Mill Creek MetroParks, said Dewine has line-item veto power, so he could eliminate the language before he signs the budget bill.

But if he doesn’t, Young said he still thinks the language could be on shaky ground.

“We have maintained all along that the right and use of eminent domain is a constitutional right, so any amendment to that would be unconstitutional,” Young said.

The MetroParks has been trying to acquire parcels along a former railroad bed in Green Township for a couple of years to build the trail. So far, the MetroParks has negotiated a price with six of the 12 affected property owners, Young said Tuesday.

The process has met with some resistance, especially from Diane M. Less, of South Range Road in Salem, best known for her association with Angels for Animals.

Less termed the MetroParks’ efforts to acquire a right of way on her property as theft, saying: “It is the equivalent to having a robber putting a gun to your head and telling you to hand over your property.”

She also said the right-of-way would cut her off from the horse trail at her farm and a family cemetery.

About three-quarters of the MetroParks bikeway was finished in the project’s first two phases. The third phase would span 6.4 miles through Mahoning County from West Western Reserve Road to Washingtonville Village.

The bikeway is part of the 100-mile Great Ohio Lake to River Greenway, which will connect Lake Erie to the Ohio River through four counties, beginning at the lake in Ashtabula County, spanning Trumbull and Mahoning counties then ending at the Ohio River in East Liverpool in Columbiana County.

On June 16, a jury in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court awarded Green Township man Thomas Hough $6,000 more than what the MetroParks was offering for a 1-mile right of way he owns on the former railroad bed the MetroParks wants to use to complete the final phase of the bike trail.

The jury awarded him about $69,000, compared to the $63,000 the MetroParks offered. The MetroParks filed an appropriation action in common pleas court after negotiations between the MetroParks and Hough failed to reach a resolution.

Hough is included among the six property owners who have reached an agreement with the MetroParks, Young said.

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