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Farm owner successfully battles city in eminent domain case
Buckeye Farm News
For almost six years Farm Bureau member Elaine Irwin has been fighting a plan to run a storm-water drainage pipe across her horse farm in northeastern Ohio. In January, a Stark County probate judge agreed with Irwin’s argument that the city of Canton did not have the right to take her property by eminent domain, ruling that the use was for private, not public, use.
“I hope my case gives somebody else hope and inspiration,” Irwin said. “The city didn’t have a legal claim to my property at all. It goes to show you can fight city hall and win.”
Larry Gearhardt, Ohio Farm Bureau’s senior director of legal and local affairs, said it was “extremely” rare to have a property owner successfully argue that a proposed eminent domain taking was for economic development that would primarily benefit a private entity. He also said the ruling was significant because it reinforced state legislation passed in 2007 that property cannot be taken unless it was necessary and for a public use.
Ohio Farm Bureau was part of a task force that recommended changes to the state’s eminent domain laws, which were later adapted by lawmakers.
“Eminent domain is huge for our members,” Gearhardt said. “It goes on all over the state of Ohio. This is a case of a landowner standing up for her rights and winning.”
Irwin’s fight began in April 2004 when a local real estate developer visited her Fair Crest Farm where she breeds, trains and sells American Quarter Horses. A development group had purchased a 143-acre farm adjacent to her property with the intention of creating an industrial park. He offered her $5,000 to sign off on a storm water drainage easement, which he said was needed to properly drain the industrial park.
After talking with various experts, Irwin concluded that the pipeline would lower the value of her property and potentially flood the pastures she used for the horses. She declined the offer and after developers failed to convince her over the years to change her mind, the city of Canton passed an emergency measure to take 20 feet of her property by eminent domain for the industrial park’s drainage.
“It wasn’t just about what they were going to take but what they were going to ruin by taking that piece of property,” she said.
When it became evident that developers and the city were not going to back down, Irwin hired an attorney and had her property zoning changed from a family housing to multi-use designation. Last June the city sued her to take the property by eminent domain. The city had to show Probate Judge Dixie Park that the eminent domain taking was necessary and for a public purpose.
Irwin’s attorney argued that the drainage pipe was for an undeveloped 30 acres of the industrial park that was to be used solely by private companies and had only one public street, which consisted of 1.1 percent of the area. The judge ruled in favor of Irwin, saying “it is questionable as to whether the taking will be of any use to the public. The Mills Park streets will primarily serve the private companies that will build there.” Irwin said the city has now appealed the judge’s ruling.
Irwin, who has had the horse farm for 17 years, said she has spent $33,000 so far on attorney fees.
“I think the eminent domain law was a huge positive step; however, we need more people like myself who are willing to fight the good fight to help set case law upon which other litigants can rely on,” she said. “The emotional toll is the biggest factor for me. I essentially fought 4 ½ years before I got an attorney involved.”