COLUMBUS, Ohio — An appeals court ruling now stands in the way of a bikeway project begun more than 27 years ago by the Mill Creek Metropolitan Park District (MetroParks) in Mahoning County. The Seventh District Court of Appeals recently ruled that MetroParks did not have the power of eminent domain when it attempted to acquire undeveloped stretches of the bikeway.
Several landowners have challenged MetroPark’s use of eminent domain for the project over the years, but this is the first case to yield a positive outcome for landowners who have not wanted the bikeway on their properties. We take a closer look at the decision in today’s post.
The court case began in 2019, when MetroParks offered landowner Diane Less $13,650 for a permanent easement for construction of the bikeway across her land. When the landowner did not agree to the conveyance, MetroParks filed an eminent domain proceeding in the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas. The landowner responded that MetroParks did not have authority to use eminent domain for the bikeway project and attempted to have the case dismissed through a summary judgment motion. The trial court found that MetroParks was authorized to appropriate the property for the bikeway and denied the motion, and the landowner appealed.
The appellate court began its review of the case by pointing out that whenever Ohio’s legislature grants the power of eminent domain to a subdivision of the state, that grant must be “strictly construed” and any doubts about the right must be resolved in favor of the property owner. An entity like a park district has eminent domain authority (also referred to as appropriation or takings) only when the Ohio legislature grants the power in statutory law. MetroParks relied on Ohio Revised Code 1545.11 as the grant of power to acquire the bikeway land by eminent domain. That statute states:
The board of park commissioners may acquire lands either within or without the park district for conversion into forest reserves and for the conservation of the natural resources of the state, including streams, lakes, submerged lands, and swamplands, and to those ends may create parks, parkways, forest reservations, and other reservations and afforest, develop, improve, protect, and promote the use of the same in such manner as the board deems conducive to the general welfare. Such lands may be acquired by such board, on behalf of said district, (1) by gift or devise, (2) by purchase for cash, by purchase by installment payments with or without a mortgage, by entering into lease-purchase agreements, by lease with or without option to purchase, or, (3) by appropriation.
The appeals court examined MetroParks’ purpose for acquiring the land for the bikeway to determine if it met either of the authorized purposes in the statute of “conversion into forest reserves” or “conservation of natural resources.” MetroParks explained that it established its purposes and the necessity of acquiring the bikeway land in two resolutions in 1993 and 2018. The first resolution stated that the “public interest demanded the construction of a bicycle path” and the second stated that the bikeway “will provide local and regional users with a safe, uniformly-designed, multi-use, off-road trail facility dedicated for public transportation and recreational purposes.”
According to the court, however, both resolutions failed to relate the necessity of the bikeway to the purposes in the statute of acquiring land “for conversion into forest reserves and for the conservation of the natural resources of the state.” The court noted other Ohio court decisions that do conclude that a bikeway meets the purpose of acquiring land for the “conservation of natural resources” when it “supplies a human need,” “contributes to the health, welfare, and benefit of the community” and is “essential for the well-being of such community and the proper enjoyment of its property.” But important to the landowner is the court’s statement that it disagrees with these principles, “especially when applied to a rural area where it appears the public need is speculative at best and the harm to the private property owners is great.” Reminding us that a statutory grant of eminent domain authority must be strictly construed and interpreted to favor a property owner, the court stated that prior decisions characterizing any project that serves the public and contributes to the health and welfare of the community as “conservation of natural resources” for purposes of R.C. 1545.11 is “a bit of a stretch.”
A second point the court made in questioning whether a bikeway fits within the purposes of park district land acquisition outlined in R.C. 1545.11 is that a law enacted after that statute assigned Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources the duty to plan and develop recreational trails, along with the authority to appropriate land for recreational trails. The statute suggests that the state agency, not park districts, possesses the authority to use eminent domain to establish recreational trails and bikeways.
Despite its disagreement with the assumption that R.C. 1545.11 permits the acquisition of land for bikeways as the “conservation of natural resources,” the court reviewed the MetroParks resolutions to determine if the park’s purpose constituted the “conservation of natural resources.” Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the resolutions were completely devoid of any purposes that met the statute’s requirements. Creating a bikeway through an extensive acreage of family-owned farmland in a rural area does not constitute the purpose of acquiring land for “conservation of natural resources of the state,” the court stated. Nor does providing recreation automatically equate to the conservation of natural resources. The resolutions did not “indicate that the creation of this particular trail or bikeway is designed to promote the general health and welfare of the pubic, which we believe requires more than just a recreational purposes” and failed at “even remotely tying the creation of the bikeway to the conservation of natural resources.”
Lacking a required statutory purpose for acquiring the bikeway land, the court concluded that MetroParks abused its discretion in attempting to appropriate the landowner’s property. The appeals court instructed the Mahoning Court of Common Pleas to grant summary judgment not only in this case, but also for a second bikeway eminent domain case the landowner was a party to with MetroParks.
A question now before MetroParks is whether it will ask the Ohio Supreme Court to review the decision of the Seventh District Court of Appeals. The park district board will meet on May 9 to discuss how it will proceed.
A continuing problem
The case highlights a recurring issue with the use of eminent domain for bike paths, as this is not the only legal issue MetroParks has faced in its mission to build its bikeway. Several other court cases have challenged the park’s eminent domain authority, though unsuccessful, and an amendment to last year’s budget bill included specific language that prohibits the use of eminent domain for recreational trails for five years in a county with a population between 220,000 and 240,00 people. Mahoning County falls within that population range. Recent attempts by Mahoning County legislators to enact laws that prohibit the use of eminent domain for recreational trails or give local governments the right to veto such actions have not made it through the Ohio General Assembly. The divisive issue is clearly one that requires a closer look by our legislators.
Read the case of Mill Creek Metro. Dist. Bd. of Commrs. v. Less here.
— Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law
Ohio State University CFAES