By LOU WILIN
LEIPSIC — An appeals court this week ruled that a Putnam County judge repeatedly botched rulings, enabling the county commissioners to unlawfully widen a road despite residents’ objections.
But residents, who favored alternative routes for truck traffic, are not gloating about their triumph before the 3rd District Court of Appeals, Lima.
The five-mile stretch of Putnam County 5 north of U.S. 224 has already been widened — and their yards cropped — by several feet. The road widening between Leipsic’s Iron Highway Industrial Park and U.S. 224 cost $4.5 million, Commissioner Vincent Schroeder said.
Widening of Putnam County 5 south to Pandora is underway but now in question because of the court ruling.
The commissioners have paid a Columbus law firm over $250,000 to defend the Road 5 widening in court, said Daniel Ellis, a Sylvania attorney representing road widening opponents.
“We’re very pleased with the 3rd District Court of Appeals … and very disappointed in the county,” said a subdued Tom Patrick of 7707 Putnam County 5.
It is unclear what remedy is available for Patrick and his 17 neighbors who fought the road widening north of U.S. 224.
“There really is only two (remedies): Pay them a lot of money or rip the road out,” Ellis said.
The appeals court did not recommend ripping out the road and restoring it to its narrower width. That would be a “tremendous waste of public resources,” the appellate judges stated.
The appeals court sent the case back to Putnam County Common Pleas Judge Randall Basinger for “further proceedings.”
Basinger erred six times in handling property owners’ efforts in 2012 and 2013 to stop the road widening, the appellate judges stated.
“I don’t think (Basinger) did (the commissioners) any favors by ignoring the law,” Ellis said.
Basinger muffed in ruling that the commissioners lawfully did the road widening, the appellate judges said.
Basinger upheld the commissioners’ noncompliance with laws that require notifying the public about meeting times and locations to discuss the widening, the appellate judges said.
He also upheld the commissioners’ unlawful record keeping of meetings and discussions, the appellate judges said.
The commissioners’ practices kept property owners in the dark for years about plans to take their property and widen the road, property owners said.
Basinger erred in siding with the commissioners’ explanation that county records were lost or destroyed, when there was “no evidence that any records ever existed,” Appeals Court Judge John Willamowski stated.
Perhaps most germane: To lawfully widen the road, the commissioners had to unanimously pass a resolution stating it was a necessity, Willamowski stated. Unanimity was unattainable because Commissioner Travis Jerwers voted against it and other resolutions for the widening and taking of property for it.
“If I was in (property owners’) position, I would feel the same way and that’s why I took the position I did,” Jerwers said Tuesday. “There were a lot of people that were not informed and government was seen as being the big bully on the block. And I don’t blame them.”
“That’s their argument: ‘I’ll ramrod it down your throat over objections even though I’m not following the law and then somewhere along the line, you’ll accept it,'” Ellis said.
Commissioner Schroeder, who voted for the road widening and taking land for it, was perplexed by the appellate court ruling.
“I don’t see how they got that. We always asked our (attorneys),” Schroeder said. “We tried to comply with all of the laws.”
Bill Weis, of 9981 Putnam County 5, does not think so.
He had heard years ago that county officials were planning to widen the road in front of his home. Then a letter came in 2011 stating that an appraiser would be visiting soon to estimate a value to compensate him for a 10-foot-wide strip along his frontage. Weis did not want to give up any property. He did not want semis coming any closer to his home than they already did.
But he felt powerless.
“I knew there was nothing I could do,” he said.
He and his neighbors might have had more leverage in September 2000, when county officials held a meeting seeking public comments about designating Putnam County 5 or other roads for trucks.
But Weis and his neighbors did not know about the meeting because they were not told about it, unlike business and township leaders who received first-class letters notifying them.
“The people that stood to lose from this … none (was) told about this meeting,” said Pandora resident Andy Borgelt, whose yard adjoins Putnam County 5.
“They did not want us involved in this project,” Weis said. “They wanted to shove it down our throats and that’s the way they tried to do it and it didn’t work. They were wrong in what they did and they didn’t want to admit to that.”
Ellis called the appellate court ruling a victory for all Putnam County residents, not just those along Putnam County 5.
The appellate court decision “forces the county commissioners to give notice of things, to keep proper minutes of things so people like you and me can go look at the minutes and find out what they are doing, instead of having discussion notes that are never approved or are never public unless you know to ask for them,” Ellis said.
“Our biggest complaints are that we didn’t know about this. (They) hid it from us. When we tried to find out, we didn’t know anything about discussion notes,” he said. “When you look at the discussion notes, you knew they had problems back in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009. And (county officials) didn’t do anything about it. (They) hid it. Because if those discussion notes were a part of the minutes, people would have been able to read them and say, ‘That’s a problem.'”
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