LOCAL VOICES: MetroParks defends Greenway battle

By Kurt Landefeld, Tom Dusza, Micah Vawters Erie Metroparks Commissioners
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010


By Kurt Landefeld, Tom Dusza, Micah Vawters

Erie Metroparks Commissioners

If the goal of those who sued your Erie Metroparks over the Huron River Greenway was to exact a pound of flesh for the "illegal seizure" of "their property," then we concede. They've achieved their goal.

Since 1995, when Erie Metroparks purchased the rights to the rail bed from the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, through September of this year, our legal expenses totaled just over $500,000. Of that, more than $300,000 was incurred since last year alone. This isn't the five million dollars that the Register's editor estimated in a recent column, but it is substantial.

Our annual budget is approximately $1.4 million. So hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lawyers hurts. How bad? In 2009 alone we had:

-- Two longtime employees retired who were not replaced;

-- One employee laid off permanently;

-- Imposed reduced hours on remaining staff.

Those cuts would have been more severe if the director and deputy director had not furloughed themselves voluntarily, in essence going unpaid over a period of several weeks.

This has resulted in cuts in programming, deferred maintenance and other reductions.

That's a pound of flesh. And then some.

For what?

For defending the construction of a hiking and biking trail along the Huron River. A trail that was bought and paid for (just over $200,000).

Please visit our Website, eriemetroparks.org, for a timeline showing the history and costs of this litigation.

We want to correct a potentially misleading statement made in a recent Register editorial.

Our "restitution offers" were called "laughable."

Following the Ohio Supreme Court decision two years ago, fair offers were made to all property owners along the Greenway. Several accepted.

The "laughable" ones the Register refers to are for easements over several litigated properties.

The Register calls the sums laughable because, we assume, the newspaper thinks, or has been told, that we're supposed to pay plaintiffs for damages and legal expenses.

Not true.

There was nothing in the Ohio Supreme Court decision that ordered the park district to do so. We were ordered to pay the plaintiffs fair market valuefor strips of rail bed the court said were taken without compensation.

This we have offered to do, despite reasonable disputes over whether the plaintiffs have legitimate deeds to the lands they claim as theirs.

(For examples of these disputes, see copies of deeds that we have also posted to our Web site and which have been given to the newspaper.)

The paper continues "The American government ... should never have the right to seize that land without proper negotiation with the owners..." We agree.

At the time the rights to the rail bed were purchased -- legally -- by Erie Metroparks, the owners were identified as a trust in what is now KeyBank. The land was not "seized." In fact, the current complainants came into ownership after the purchase was made.

Our legal fees skyrocketed this year because of new legal actions. A few, hardcore plaintiffs launched a new federal lawsuit in 2008 against the district for not moving quickly enough to compensate them per the 2007 court decision. "Quickly enough" may be disputable.

We spent the balance of 2007 selecting a new director, then much of 2008 finding someone willing to survey the lands, another to do title searches and someone else willing to appraise them.

The paper calls on our law firm to "bring this disaster to an end." On this, too, we agree.

But the readers of this paper should know that repeated efforts to reach out to these few property owners have been rebuffed at every turn. (Again, the paper has copies of our correspondence.)

Instead, these very few want to deny Erie County residents the use of a trail that will bring enjoyment and enhance property values. Their strategy has been to delay and entangle with, it seems, the ultimate goal of bankrupting your park district.

Some pound of flesh.

by Kurt Landefeld, Tom Dusza, Micah Vawters

Erie Metroparks Commissioners