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Ohio drainage law revamped

By Matt Reese

By all accounts, the specifics of House Bill 340 may not be all that exciting, but the bill does have significant implications for Ohio’s agricultural drainage projects moving forward. 

With more big rain events putting more water into existing drainage systems and increasing scrutiny of water quality in Ohio, massive efforts and big dollars are being poured into reducing agricultural nutrient and soil loss into the water. The big projects are important, but so are the mundane details of implementing local drainage efforts that were long overdue for updates.  

On Dec. 17, 2020 Governor Mike DeWine signed House Bill 340, sponsored by Speaker Bob Cupp, to modernize Ohio’s petition drainage laws to better handle issues of excess water in agricultural areas as well as residential and commercial properties and roadways. For agriculture, HB 340 dramatically updates the process a farm would use for a drainage project involving the county for installation and maintenance. It goes into effect 90 days after it was signed.

HB 340 was the result of a lengthy look at the minutia of drainage petitions. Amy Milam, director of legal education and member engagement with Ohio Farm Bureau served on the Drainage Law Revision Task Force organized by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio to take a look at the issue.

“We are very excited about [HB 340] because it made some important updates and revisions. It is the result of a lot of good work coming together. This was a multi-year task force put together in 2013 bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders. The stakeholders took a look at the really outdated statutes we had and looked at ways to bring them up to modern times in terms of terminology and technology. Portions of the statute actually dated all the way back to the 1860s. We had some really outdated terminology and the process just did not keep up with modern times,” Milam said. “There are two statutory processes a landowner can use to petition the county to assist in some drainage projects. Common examples are drainage ditches, culverts, underground tile, and clearing log jams or debris. This provides a way to file a petition directly with your county commissioners or the local soil and water conservation district to request these drainage improvement projects. The county will then assess the cost to the landowners who will benefit from the project with each of them paying an appropriate share of the costs. There were lots of portions of these statutes that needed to be streamlined and updated. There are requirements for viewing the proposed projects and hearings for the projects and public notices that have to go along with that.”

One example of the changes made addresses how the projects are initially assessed or viewed.

“It updated the way the county can conduct the view of the project. Under the old law, all of the county officials involved had to physically walk the entirety of the proposed site. This could potentially stretch for miles on uneven terrain and if you’re not a drainage technician you may not really gain much from that physical walk through,” Milam said. “HB 340 allows for the use of modern technology like drone footage put on a PowerPoint presentation by a drainage technician or engineer to show what you are looking at in a manner that does not require everyone to walk the entire length of it. At the end of the day, this kind of use of technology can actually provide a better understanding of the project by the public and local officials.” 

HB 340 also clarifies timelines for projects and specifies details based on the modern process of drainage petition projects.

“It better addresses the timeline and how it should flow for either type of statutory process that you could use. This is going to be much more efficient. Timelines and deadlines were addressed to better reflect the modern process of how things actually work,” Milam said. “This clarifies some things like when you can file an amendment to someone’s petition and what that means. It clarifies who keeps the permanent file of the proceedings and how we reflect that in the public record when someone is searching files. These are not necessarily big and flashy changes, but just a lot of modernizing and giving these statutes some attention they have needed.”

Moving forward, the work of Drainage Law Revision Task Force in HB 340 will better coordinate with some of the state’s bigger efforts to improve water quality.

“We knew this was going to be limited in its ability to get a lot of attention, but at the end of the day I think everyone was pleased with the changes that were made,” Milam said. “Hopefully this has been improved to make it a more easily understood process for those using it and the county officials who oversee it.”

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