Crime testimony OK’d in bike-trail civil case
YOUNGSTOWN — Property owners Michael and Barbara Cameron and their lawyers can present testimony on availability of information about criminal activity on or near the Mill Creek MetroParks Bikeway and other hike and bike paths, a magistrate has ruled.
But Magistrate James Melone of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court added that he will have to decide whether specific examples of crime or crime statistics will be allowed into the trial.
He recently ruled on several motions in the civil case between the Camerons and the MetroParks over the MetroParks’ attempt to use eminent domain to acquire a right of way on 6.5 acres on a former railroad bed the Camerons own near Washingtonville Road in Green Township.
The purpose of an eminent domain case is to determine the fair market value for property a public entity wants to acquire.
The property is a 65-foot-wide, 3,400-foot-long piece of land that passes through their 158-acre farm just east of Salem. The MetroParks wants to acquire the right of way as part of its plan to complete the last 6.4 miles of its bikeway. The 6.4-mile section would be from Western Reserve Road near Canfield to the Columbiana County line in southern Mahoning County. The MetroParks wants to use the former railroad bed for most of the new segment.
The MetroParks filed a motion in the nearly-three-year-old case last September asking that the Camerons not be able to introduce crime statistics or stories of crime near recreational bike trails to a jury, calling that information irrelevant.
The Camerons, conversely, say such stories are relevant because the value of their 158-acre property could be adversely affected by the presence of a bike trail.
Such stories are “readily available through a simple internet search and is a factor in the marketplace,” a Camerons filing 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.
Melone’s ruling states that he will allow testimony regarding the “availability” of information on criminal activity on or near bike trails “for the purpose of showing how the availability of such information can influence the real estate market and values.”
He added that he will have to decide either before or during trial on whether specific examples of crime or crime statistics will be allowed into the trial. That will be a “balancing” between what court rules allow and the “prejudicial effect” such testimony will have on a jury.
The case currently has no trial date.
The MetroParks also filed a motion asking that the Camerons and their lawyers not be allowed to present testimony from their appraiser, Richard Vannatta, suggesting that the value of the Camerons’ property will be devalued by 20 percent by the MetroParks acquiring the bikeway right of way. The appraiser deemed the 20 percent loss as “consequential damages and business-loss damages.”
Melone ruled that Vannatta’s opinion on devaluation of the Camerons property “is within his scope of expertise and properly considered by the jury.”
Melone agreed with the MetroParks, however, that Vannatta shall not be allowed to present testimony indicating the Camerons’ property will be devalued by the hike and bike trail by “diminished quiet enjoyment” of their property, “fear of crime, loss of privacy, etc., as such testimony is highly speculative and would encourage the jury to engage in speculation otherwise prohibited by law.”
Melone stated that allowing that testimony would “permit the jury to compensate (the Camerons) twice for the same alleged damages” because such reduction in the value of their property has “already been factored into Mr. Vanatta’s” 20 percent figure.
The Camerons and their attorneys also cannot offer commentary on whether the trail will result in “diminished privacy,” “unknowable types of users of the bikeway, theft, bodily injury and diminished functionality of the property,” Melone ruled.
Melone works for Judge Anthony D’Apolito.
In the same ruling, Melone ruled in favor of a Cameron motion preventing testimony on the Mahoning County Auditor’s assessed value of their property.
And, Melone ruled in favor of the MetroParks request that a jury not hear how much the MetroParks paid for other properties the MetroParks needs for this phase of the bike trail or the total cost of the project. The MetroParks said it did not intend to introduce that evidence in the case anyway.
Melone has not yet ruled on a motion by the Camerons that the eminent domain case be dismissed on the grounds that a change in Ohio law approved by Gov. Mike DeWine on June 30 in the state budget bill championed by state Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, outlaws use of eminent domain for a recreational bike trail — such as the one involved in this case.
The MetroParks argues the new law is unconstitutional and cannot be applied to this case because it was initiated before the new law took effect.