By Ty Higgins, Ohio Ag Net
In early September, lawyers representing 87 farmers in Mercer County filed a contempt court order against the Kasich administration and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). This was a move hoping to compel ODNR to comply with a ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court last year to compensate farmers, families and business owners along Grand Lake St. Marys whose lands flood during rain storms.
The reason for this case dates back to 1997, when ODNR installed a horseshoe-shaped dam in the hopes that the lake would become more self-sustaining and no longer require ODNR to drain the lake once a year to prevent flooding. However, that goal was never realized and the residents and business owners of the area have suffered significant floods almost every year for the last 15 years. Flooding was bad enough to damage crops and temporarily evacuate homes.
According to Joe Miller with Vorys, Sater, Seymore and Pease LLP the law firm representing the farmers in Mercer County, farmers downstream from the then newly constructed dam as well as the County Engineer and public officials warned ODNR that this project would cause extensive flooding. That turned out to be the case.
“For the farmers that I represent downstream it has been disastrous,” Miller said. “It has wiped out crops, left debris on their land and some people become trapped in their homes.”
Miller explained that ODNR has been previously ordered by other courts to compensate the downstream landowners, but ODNR never stepped up to examine who was affected by this flooding and offer compensation. That led to the filing of this contempt court order.
In June, the administration approached Vorys, Sater, Seymore and Pease LLP with a settlement of $5,000 an acre that would finally bring resolution to this issue for the landowners. Throughout the negotiating process, ODNR was in communication with the governor’s office and the law firm believed that ODNR was negotiating in good faith. In August, after three months of what appeared to be significant progress, the deal was abruptly pulled. At a meeting with the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, ODNR representatives said the Governor’s Office would not authorize the settlement.
Shortly after the law firm filed the contempt court order, ODNR released a statement saying:
“The court filing against ODNR is totally without merit. ODNR is not in contempt of the Court’s earlier ruling in this matter. We have been preparing to proceed with the individual property owner’s cases in the Mercer County court and we have recently filed the first two of those cases in that court. Many more of these cases will soon follow.
This action is nothing more than a badly misguided legal strategy pursued by trial lawyers who are angry that the state did not automatically agree to their inflated multi-million dollar settlement demand, and instead are making them work harder. We have an obligation to Ohio tax payers to make sure that each case is valued fairly and we will carry out that obligation.”
Miller says what ODNR has done so far is simply not enough and he hopes that they will step up and fulfill their obligations sooner rather than later.
“The law and the constitution are very clear,” Miller said. “When a landowner’s property is taken by government they are entitled to compensation. This is not a question of if these landowners are deserving of money, it is how much.”