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Bike trail case pedals on

The MetroParks value the land at $37,650; the Camerons say it’s worth $249,080

Michael Cameron of Green Township stands on the former railroad bed he owns just down the hill from his barns and home. Cameron runs a cattle farm on his 158 acres. Mill Creek MetroParks is trying to use eminent domain in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to acquire the right to build the third phase of its bike trail on the former railroad bed.

GREEN — Mill Creek MetroParks’ effort to use eminent domain to acquire land along a former railroad bed in Green Township for a bike and hike trail has led to a long list of filings over nearly three years involving the property of Michael and Barbara Cameron.

The case began Nov. 20, 2018, when MetroParks attorneys filed a petition in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court asking a judge to allow the MetroParks to acquire a permanent easement on a 65-foot wide, 3,400-foot long, former railroad bed the Camerons own and to set the fair market value that should be paid to the Camerons for the 6 1/2 acres.

The vacant land is part of the Camerons’ 158 acres off Pine Lake Road that they use as a home and cattle farm, court documents state. The easement the MetroParks wants to acquire cuts through the middle of the farm.

The two sides of the property would be accessible through a gated crossing over the bike trail. The MetroParks paid for an appraisal that indicated the fair market value of the land it wants is $37,650, but the appraisal the Camerons paid for values the land at $249,080. That consists of $41,990 for the land and $207,090 for the damages to the Cameron’s remaining property, a filing by the Camerons states.

The case is being handled by a magistrate, James Melone, who works for Judge Anthony D’Apolito of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.

The Camerons declined to be interviewed for this story.

LAND USE

Last September, the MetroParks’ attorneys filed a motion asking that the Camerons and their attorneys not be allowed to introduce evidence in the case indicating that the couple are entitled to money for “consequential” losses, such as “diminished privacy and quiet enjoyment, fear of unknowable types of users of the bikeway, fear of bodily injury” or “diminished functional utility” on their property.

The Camerons hired an appraiser, Richard Vannatta, who reported that the Camerons use most of their land for raising crops, such as corn and soybeans and feed for cattle. Vannatta asserts that the couple will have damages of $207,090 for what Vannatta calls the “project’s negative influences,” a MetroParks filing states.

The MetroParks called Vannatta’s calculations of lost value unreliable, “amorphous, vague and speculative” and asks that such information not be allowed to be presented to a jury.

The MetroParks noted that in another eminent domain case involving property owner Thomas Hough on the same project, a judge prohibited the introduction of evidence regarding lost profits associated with Hough’s landscaping business, “insofar as such testimony would be so highly speculative that it would invite the jury to engage in an analysis otherwise not permitted by law.”

In that case, Judge R. Scott Krichbaum and his magistrate, Tim Welsh, also suppressed evidence regarding damages “allegedly resulting from construction of the proposed project which may include diminished privacy and quiet enjoyment, fear of crime, unknowable types of users of the bikeway, theft and bodily injury.”

A jury awarded Hough $62,975 for the right of way on the former railroad bed and $6,000 for a smaller parcel. The MetroParks was offering about $63,000 for the former railroad bed and about $35 for the smaller parcel.

DAMAGES?

In an appropriation action such as this one, damages can be awarded — but not for “speculative prospective detriment or injury to the value of the (remaining) land,” the MetroParks lawyers argued.

The filing mentioned that the Camerons do not like the idea that people they don’t know will be passing nearby their home while on the bike trail. Currently, they cannot see another house, and there is no public road past their home, a filing states.

The MetroParks filing states such testimony should not be allowed in the trial because the Camerons and their appraiser have provided “no data or research that supports his conclusion that diminished privacy and quiet enjoyment, fear of unknowable types of users of the bike way, crime, fear of bodily injury has any effect on market value.”

CRIME

The MetroParks also filed a motion last September asking that the Camerons be barred from introducing crime statistics or stories of crime near recreational bike trails from evidence. The filing says such information is irrelevant.

A response to the motion filed by an attorney representing the Camerons states that evidence of crime on the MetroParks’ existing bikeway and other area bikeways “is highly … relevant and central to this case.”

Such information is “readily available through a simple internet search and is a factor in the marketplace,” the Camerons stated. “This information will be offered for the purpose of showing the availability of crime information associated with the bikeway to prospective buyers and its influence on the price a prospective buyer would be willing to pay,” the filing states.

The appraiser for the Camerons has valued their property at about $2 million. A person considering the purchase of such a property is likely to carry out an internet search to investigate how much loss in value would take place because of a bike trail “running through the middle of the property,” a Cameron filing states.

NEW LAW

The court also was asked to decide whether House Bill 110, which was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on June 30 prevents the MetroParks from acquiring the property through eminent domain. The Camerons asked that the MetroParks eminent domain case be dismissed. The Camerons argue that the new law prevents the use of eminent domain to acquire property for a recreational trail in Mahoning County.

The MetroParks says the case was about to go to trial in July when DeWine signed H.B. 110. It caused the trial to be postponed, but the legislation does not apply to this eminent domain case, the MetroParks argues. The reason is because H.B. 110 becomes effective Sept. 29, 2021, three years after the Cameron eminent domain case was filed, and the law cannot be enforced retroactively, the MetroParks states.

Furthermore, the MetroParks argues that the H.B. 110 is unconstitutional because it “targets” the Mill Creek MetroParks, but not all park districts in Ohio, which violates the state constitution’s “mandate for uniform operation of laws.”

Welsh ruled Aug. 17 that he would not allow the Hough case to be reopened or reversed based on H.B. 110, saying the rulings in the case were reached before H.B. 110 was signed into law.

Melone has not yet ruled on the motions asking that crime evidence be banned from the trial or that the case be dismissed because of H.B. 110. The case does not have a trial date.

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