New eminent domain war: Cincinnati OH Enquirer, 11/27/06

Vincent Rack's family has owned North Bend land since 1932; now Green Township wants to claim 6.5 acres of it

By Gregory Korte

Vincent Rack pointed out the electrical transmission lines that cut through his property on West North Bend Road, the construction equipment he's stored there for more than 50 years, and the ramshackle Civil War-era cottage that's the only thing in the neighborhood older than he is.

"Do-gooders," he said, are "trying to make North Bend like some high-class road."

"There ain't nothing high-class about this road," he said.

Those "do-gooders" want to take the property his family has owned since 1932 to extend Kleeman Road into a new township park.

The Green Township trustees filed an eminent domain lawsuit against Rack last month, seeking to take 6.5 acres of Rack's property for $540,000.

"You want to know the story? They're trying to get rid of Vince Rack," Rack said.

Now 87, Rack has fought zoning battles with the township for two decades. He's won some and lost some.

The eminent domain case, filed last month in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, continues the dispute between Rack and the township over the zoning of the property, where Rack keeps heavy equipment for his development and equipment company, Monfort Supply.

The case is also likely to test the new rules of eminent domain in Ohio following the Ohio Supreme Court decision in Norwood v. Horney. The ruling struck down as unconstitutional a law allowing the use of eminent domain for economic development - or the taking of property from one private property owner to give to another.

That, Rack and his attorney say, is exactly what's going on.

"It's probably not where you want to take your family for a picnic," said Rack's lawyer, Vincent A. Dimasi, noting the utility transmission lines that cut through the property. "If that's a park, it's the worst park I've seen in my life. I think a couple guys just got together one day and decided to take the land by eminent domain, and they came up with this park idea."

Dimasi has some personal experience with eminent domain. He represented himself and his mother, 80-year-old Emma Dimasi, in an eminent domain battle over his mother's Clifton house.

Lower courts ruled that the city of Cincinnati could take her house for a road project that helps Good Samaritan Hospital, and the case is now before the Ohio Supreme Court.

In Rack's case, Dimasi is using a similar argument: That the taking isn't just for a road, but to promote economic development.

A subsidiary of Butler County Surgery is building a medical office next door, but has only a one-lane, 20-foot private drive to the property.

But Green Township Law Director Francis M. Hyle said the case has nothing to do with the issues raised in Norwood. The township isn't claiming the property is blighted.

"This is not a taking for economic development. It's not for the benefit of any private developer. We're not going to sell the land off," he said. "Is it an eyesore? I'll let you judge for yourself when you look at it. It certainly stands out on North Bend Road when you look at it."

State Rep. Bill Seitz, a former township trustee who represents the area in the Ohio General Assembly, has been one of the leading voices for eminent domain reform in the state. But he said the taking of private property for a public use - in this case, a park - is a time-honored and widely accepted use of governmental power.

"If you look at Mr. Rack's history, he's a quite litigious fellow," said Seitz. "So if there's anyone who would try to push the envelope, it would be him."

Rack was 12 when his parents bought the property on West North Bend Road for the family homestead, small farm and contracting business. That was 1932, and since then the family contracting business has built more than 30 subdivisions and acquired enough heavy equipment that it needs several properties along North Bend to store it.

Rack lives in a ranch house about 200 feet to the south, at the corner of North Bend and Rackacres, a street of $230,000 houses he developed in the 1970s.

Rack has handed off the daily operations of his companies, the V&G Rack Co. and Monfort Supply Co., to his seven sons and daughters, all of whom work for the family business. Rack said his full-time job is to fight with the township.

The township's economic development director, Adam Goetzman, and the chairman of the board of trustees, Chuck Mitchell, did not return calls seeking comment.

They're both named in a $15 million federal lawsuit against two dozen current and former township and county officials as well as neighborhood activists. That lawsuit claims a "local Republican regime" conspired to violate Rack's civil rights through repeated zoning enforcement actions. The defendants are trying to restrict the use of his property so he is effectively being deprived of it use, Rack alleges. He also claims government officials defamed him, violated his due-process rights and interfered with his business.

Rack filed the federal lawsuit three years ago, and it's still in the procedural stages. Dimasi predicts long legal battles in both cases:

"If you were to place Vince Rack and Chuck Mitchell head to head you'd see two sides of the same coin. They're both very stubborn. They're a couple tough old dogs who have been in fights before. They're in for the duration. Neither one is going to back down. It's going to be a war."

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