By Tom Dusza, Micah Vawters, Kurt Landefeld
Erie MetroParks Commissioners
On Nov. 21, 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Erie MetroParks had acquired the lands that became the Huron River Greenway without properly compensating their owners.
The court ordered Erie MetroParks to reach fair settlements with the property owners.
In doing so, the court overturned the opinions of two lower courts and ended nearly 10 years of litigation.
The court also ruled that MetroParks owns these properties today. Ownership is not in dispute. What is left is to find fair value for all the parcels that together make up the Greenway.
We have said that we will follow what the Supreme Court has directed us to do.
We want to move through this process fairly, amicably and with respect to the rights of the property owners along the Greenway.
Therefore, MetroParks is taking four steps that we want the general public to be aware of.
First, we are conducting title searches for all properties to ensure that ownership prior to MetroParks acquiring those lands is free and clear. MetroParks assumes the cost of these searches.
Second, we are researching reasonable values for these parcels through available sources including the Erie County Auditor's office.
Third, we are sending letters to all property owners outlining their options for reaching settlements with MetroParks.
Fourth, we have directed our director-secretary, Stephen Dice, to meet with each property owner individually and present the results of our research.
At that point, if the property owner agrees that we have made a fair assessment, then we will discuss available options, including fair compensation, and move to finalize a settlement.
If the owner does not believe a fair assessment has been made, the owner has three options. The options are:
-- Instituting an appropriations case
Mediation is the simplest, and least expensive, option. This option is best used when both the property owner and MetroParks are in general agreement, but perhaps need some details ironed out.
A Citizens Advisory Committee is being established that will let property owners who prefer this neutral body review their claims and valuations.
This committee will attempt to help the property owner and MetroParks find a settlement. Their recommendations will be non-binding. However, MetroParks is willing to accept the committee's judgments and we hope owners who choose this option will also.
Arbitration is a more formal and more expensive option. This option is best used when the property owner and MetroParks want to reach an agreement, but prefer to let a professional arbitrator find a solution.
It is understood that the arbitrator's decision is binding on both parties. There is cost associated with the use of the arbitrator. That cost will be shared between MetroParks and the property owner.
Filing an appropriations case is the most expensive, least desirable, option. This option is used only when a settlement cannot be reached by other means.
While the Supreme Court made clear that Erie MetroParks has the right under Ohio law to acquire property by means of appropriation, it is not our desire to do so.
We are well aware of the hard feelings and personal anguish the creation of the Greenway and the subsequent litigation caused in some families. We do not feel additional litigation will facilitate the atmosphere of cooperation we are trying to foster in this process. Our goal is to resolve this manner in the most reasonable manner possible.
What is the future of the Huron River Greenway?
For now, the Greenway remains closed.
We respect the Court's decision and have no desire to either antagonize property owners who feel they retain ownership, nor put any member of the public at risk to misunderstandings. Our ultimate goal is to reopen the entire length of the Greenway. As we reach agreements with contiguous property owners, we hope to reopen sections that can be accessed easily.
The Huron River Greenway remains an important historical and recreational asset for all Erie County residents.
When it reopens, however, we will continue to make the boundaries between the Greenway and private properties clear via signage and landscaping.
A year from today, we look forward to having mended our relationships and having the Huron River Greenway open and accessible to all.