When the state wants your land: Sandusky OH Register, 10/12/07

By Chauncey Alcorn

Jodie Logan of New London [OH] was filled with frustration and anger Wednesday morning as she stood staring at her dilapidated former place of business.

"You guys can go in and take pictures if you want," she said to a Register reporter and photographer. "I don't want to be charged with trespassing."

Since 1998, Logan worked at 2690 U.S. 250 as a photographer, taking scenic family photos on the Vermilion River.

But in December 2006, the Ohio Department of Transportation forced her to vacate her 2.4 acre property by threat of eminent domain, which allows government agencies to seize a private property if there is a compelling public interest.

Since 1998, Logan had invested thousands of dollars in renovations to her business.

In 2006, a Huron County Auditor's office appraiser valued her property at $104,300, including land and improvements.

But in February and April of last year, ODOT's appraiser only estimated the property's value at a total of $74,570, including the land and the building.

"We feel the value will be much less because they're not going to use the building on the property," ODOT Spokesman Brian Stacy said.

Stacy said Logan received a total of more than $90,000 for her land and property, including damages and moving expenses.

But what about the Huron County Auditor's office total estimated value of Logan's property - nearly $30,000 more?

"We're not permitted to use that as a value," Stacy said.

ODOT hires its own contracted appraisers to determine a "fair market value" for properties it acquires.

ODOT appraisers use three different approaches to determine this value: a market, cost, and income generator approach.

Taking the market approach, appraisers look at similar properties of similar size and type in the region and what they sold for and make adjustment on square footage and region to get a fair property value.

The cost approach is used to determine the depreciated value of a building.

"When you do the cost and the other approach, both came out at about $74,500," Stacy said.

But in 2006, Logan said, her attorney had her property appraised at more than $100,000, much closer to the Huron County Auditor's estimate.

During that year, Logan corrected an error in her property record card that raised the value of her property.

"Did she get the value higher because she was selling the property? I suppose you could say that, but she was correct in what she did," Huron County Deputy Auditor Annie Saunders said. "She didn't do anything unethical."

Huron County Auditor Roland Tkach said if two separate appraisers valued Logan's property at around $100,000, then that's what ODOT should pay.

"You would think a reasonable individual would say that's what it's worth and we'll do the right thing," he said.

"(Logan's) only remedy is court," Tkach said. "It's a dispute between a buyer and a seller."

But since her business has been shut down, Logan says she has run out of money and can't afford to sue ODOT.

She's sent letters to President Bush and to lawmakers.

She said Rep. Matt Barrett, D-Amherst, was the only one to come to her aid.

"I do believe Mrs. Logan kind of got the short end of the stick here," Barrett said.

Beginning in February, Barrett's office has been negotiating with Gov. Strickland's office and ODOT to come up with some sort of resolution for Logan.

Since that time, he helped pass Senate Bill 7, which specifically gives property owners such as Logan more power to fight against ODOT in eminent domain cases.

The measure forces ODOT to pay a plaintiff's legal fees if a court rules in favor of the plaintiff in eminent domain cases.

"If a final award of compensation was greater than 125 percent of the agency's offer, ODOT also has to pay penalties including the landowner's cost to litigate it," Barrett said. "We made a stronger incentive for ODOT to treat everyone fairly."

Barrett said lawyers who see eminent domain cases with blatantly unfair treatment will often take them on knowing they'll be paid after they win.

But Senate Bill 7 wasn't passed soon enough for Logan, who said she accepted what ODOT gave her because she didn't have the money for a legal battle.

Stacy said his department's eminent domain powers come from not only state law, but from the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Stacy said eminent domain powers are very rarely used by his department, partly because state eminent domain laws are so strict.

"Each modification of the Ohio laws have made Ohio laws more restrictive than federal laws to the betterment of Ohio property owners," he said.

Stacy said state agencies like ODOT are only able to acquire what they need for a project.

ODOT needs Logan's property to build a U.S. 250 railroad overpass, which is part of a railway improvement project started in 2001 under then-Gov. Bob Taft.

"We also guarantee payment of just compensation upon appropriation of private property," Stacy said.

"I feel totally defeated and depressed," Logan said. "I haven't even been operating my business because I have no place in my home to do it ... I am always thinking how am I going to get my business back (running)."

A proposed constitutional amendment to increase property owners' powers in eminent domain cases was shot down in the Ohio Senate earlier this year.

Logan said ODOT forced her to vacate her business in December because it needed to begin construction on its railroad overpass.

Since then the project has been delayed twice and Stacy said construction may not begin until next year.

From fiscal years 2004-2006, the Ohio Department of Transportation dealth with a total of 4,870 parcels of land.

Eminent domain enforcement was only necessary in 12 percent of those cases.

Sandusky OH Register: http://www.sanduskyregister.com