CELINA — A feud between a group of Mercer County farmers and a state government agency is back in court again.
A lawsuit was filed in federal court Thursday on behalf of a group of 52 farmers west of Grand Lake St. Marys against Ohio Department of Natural Resources director James Zehringer and unnamed employees in both ODNR and Gov. John Kasich’s office. The suit asserts that ODNR has worked to intimidate and retaliate against the landowners after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the agency owed them compensation for increased flooding from a redesigned spillway at the lake. The spillway, redesigned in 1997 and expanded from 39 feet to nearly 500 feet, according to the complaint, was causing increased water flow into Beaver Creek, flooding onto affected property even after minimal rain events.
The department was held in contempt by the Supreme Court in 2012 for failing to compensate the farmers, while a second request to hold the department in contempt in 2014 was denied. According to the law firm representing the farmers — Bruce Ingram of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP — the department has since worked to undermine the eminent domain payouts to the affected landowners.
“Since 2011, Director Zehringer has spent millions on the retaliation, taking numerous positions, called absurd and inequitable by Ohio courts, and engaging in other intimidation and coercive tactics for the purpose of grinding down and gradually destroying the farmers’ will to exercise their constitutional rights,” he said. “During this time and because of this retaliation, eight of our clients have died without realizing the just compensation that was entitled to them.”
ODNR spokesman Matt Eiselstein expressed disappointment in what he called the “latest legal maneuver” by Ingram and his firm.
“(This) appears to be nothing more than a publicity stunt aimed at forcing a settlement in these cases,” he said. “As is evidenced by the overall $11 million already paid to plaintiffs, ODNR is committed to ensuring all affected landowners in these cases receive the money owed to them by law.”
The complaint alleges that any payments by ODNR were done “under protest,” a measure it says makes any payments subject to being revoked. Additionally, Ingram points to quotes from Kasich calling the calls for compensation a “money grab.”
“Governor Kasich also made public statements to turn Plaintiff’s neighbors against them, by claiming that any money paid to Plaintiffs would result in taking money away from working on the lake,” the complaint reads.
ODNR has appealed the appraisals, threatening to take that appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the complaint. The agency insists that it does not dispute the fact that increased flooding has taken place, but the contention centers around how much increased flooding has taken place.