OTTAWA — After six years of litigation over Road 5, Putnam County Commissioners have spent approximately $1.2 million of taxpayer money on court and attorney fees and are on the hook for even more money.
In 2012, the Putnam County Commissioners used eminent domain to seize small amounts of property from residents living on Road 5 in order to widen the dangerous roadway by 10 feet on either side. Putnam County Commissioner Michael Lammers said 90 percent of the residents living on Road 5 embraced the project and accepted the good faith offers for those chunks of property.
A group of 13 property owners refused the good faith offers, attempted to block the project and eventually took the commissioners to court for violations of the Ohio Sunshine Act after the project was complete.
The $1.2 million was spent on different court costs associated with the Road 5 case, said Putnam County Auditor Robert Benroth. This total includes costs from the first date of litigation on record — Aug. 2, 2012 — to Tuesday, he said. It doesn’t include salary costs and manpower for courthouse employees working on different aspects of the case, which is difficult to account for, he said.
“This is absolutely taxpayer money,” Benroth said.
Until the case is either settled out of court or during trial, the commissioners will continue to spend money on it. They were recently ordered by visiting Judge Dale Crawford to pay a total of $37,000 for more attorney fees to the attorneys representing the Road 5 residents.
During a 15-minute agenda meeting Tuesday, commissioners allocated $104,000 to more Road 5 legal affairs — $40,000 for legal fees to their Columbus based attorney, Frank Reed, and $65,000 to complete appraisals on the properties of the 13 residents involved in the case.
Neither side of this case seems to be able to reach a compromise, even after three attempts at mediation.
“Under Ohio law, if the landowner requests mediation, the judge has no discretion. He has to grant mediation,” Reed said. “What we said to Judge Crawford is, ‘Look, we’ve tried to mediate this case twice in different contexts, and we’ve not been successful because the landowners have not been responding to us.’”
Reed went into this third mediation expecting it to fail because, from his perspective, the Road 5 land owners have been completely unreasonable in their demands, he said.
“In our view, the only thing the landowners are entitled to is the fair market value of the land,” he said. “They’re not entitled to trespass, they’re not entitled to proximity damages, they’re not entitled to compensation for any lost trees, bushes or things like that.”
Mediation has failed from the perspective of Reed and the commissioners because the Road 5 residents will not accept the original offers made for their property in 2012. Instead they want compensation for damages done to their property when the roadway was widened and trespass damage, said Linde Webb, a Toledo based attorney representing the Road 5 residents.
Reed said some of the landowners are asking for settlements totaling what their entire property is worth, or more, for maybe 5 feet of property taken by the Putnam County Commissioners using eminent domain.
“We tried really hard, because I felt that the best settlement would be the whole, entire thing, including the federal case,” Webb said. “If we’re going to really do a meaningful settlement for everybody to end everything, to stop the flow of attorney fees from the commissioners, that we would settle everything. It wouldn’t make sense to do otherwise.”
Going into the mediation last month, Webb said she thought there was an understanding between both sides this would be the best for everyone, but an impasse was reached again, she said.
A single, combined trial date has been set for Oct. 9 to Oct. 12 for all 13 Road 5 cases. A jury will hear testimony from both sides about the value of the properties taken by the commissioners before the take and after the project. The jury will then decide how much compensation each resident should receive, Webb and Reed both said.
Reach Bryan Reynolds at 567-242-0362.