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MetroParks price dispute arrives in courtroom

Civil case over bike trail begins

Staff photo / Ed Runyan Attorney Ted Roberts speaks to jurors during opening statements in a civil trial that began Monday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court over the amount the Mill Creek MetroParks should pay property owner Thomas Hough for a right-of-way on a 1-mile former railroad right-of-way Hough owns. Behind Roberts are, from left, Aaron Young, executive director of the MetroParks, and Hough.

YOUNGSTOWN — A civil trial began Monday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court over the price that the Mill Creek MetroParks should pay to acquire the right-of-way for a 1-mile section of abandoned railroad line in Green Township to extend the MetroParks bikeway another 6.4 miles in southern Mahoning County.

The MetroParks is trying to acquire the land to complete the third and final phase of the bike trail from West Western Reserve Road to Washingtonville village.

Property owner Thomas Hough of Calla Road has rejected the $63,000 an agent for the MetroParks offered Hough to pay for the 8.4 acres of his land, arguing that the price ought to be $500,000 more than that because of the value of soil and slag on the property.

“I’m sure you all know the park,” Hough’s attorney, Molly Johnson said during opening statements. “I’m sure many of you love the park. And some of you have probably been on portions of the existing trail before. I just want to make it clear to you, we love the park too.”

She said the trial is happening because Mill Creek MetroParks carried out an “incomplete appraisal” of Hough’s land that does not account for the top soil and slag on the property and the “landlocking” and “loss of frontage” that will occur as the MetroParks acquires the right of way.

Johnson said Hough has lived in Green Township his entire life. “He likes quiet, privacy and space that the country affords him,” she said. One of Hough’s businesses involves selling the topsoil and slag. If Mill Creek Park acquires the right of way, it will also secure the materials Hough sells, Johnson said.

The trial will not be about whether the park’s attempt to acquire the right of way is a “legitimate use of the awesome power of eminent domain,” she said. “Instead, it’s my job … to make sure the park pays fair market value for everything they are taking. To put it bluntly, they are attempting to take some of my client’s property for free.”

She said the MetroParks’ taking of the right of way will leave part of Hough’s property landlocked and will take away “extremely valuable frontage.” And the MetroParks will be “enriched” by the value of the slag and topsoil on the property “because they will not have to truck those materials in.”

Ted Roberts, attorney for the MetroParks, told the jury he wants them to be “fair to Mr. Hough and fair to Mill Creek.” The “historical railroad bed” is 66 feet wide and 5,711 feet long, he said.

The board of commissioners of the MetroParks approved a resolution to build the bike trail in 1993 on the rail line Conrail abandoned in the 1980s, he said. The first two phases were 10.6 miles from the Trumbull County line to Western Reserve Road and were constructed in 2000 and 2001 through Austintown, Canfield Township and Canfield, he said.

The rail line first started running through Mahoning County in the 1860s, “so that bed has been there a long, long time,” he said. The tracks and railroad ties are gone, he pointed out. The jurors saw a video shot by a drone before the trial began. It showed that the path in question is mostly wooded.

He said Hough acquired the right of way to about a mile of the railboard bed in 1992 for about $5,000. The MetroParks is offering $7,500 per acre.

Roberts said the appraisal done for the MetroParks determined that “there was no extra or instrinsic value” to the soil and slag. He said the materials are “simply part of the property.”

Aaron Young, executive director of the MetroParks, sat at the table with the MetroParks’ lawyers during the trial, which resumes at 8:30 a.m. today.

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