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Published: Sunday, 6/22/2008

ODOT, property owners clash over U.S. 24 construction project

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Eugene Ward is balking at ODOT's offer for land to be used for U.S. 24 construction. Eugene Ward is balking at ODOT's offer for land to be used for U.S. 24 construction.
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Eugene Ward was in for a bit of a surprise when Ohio Department of Transportation land surveyors visited his property to lay out a new cul-de-sac on Box Road to be built as part of the new U.S. 24 across southern Lucas County.

According to the state, the evergreen tree that Mr. Ward thought was on his property's northeast corner actually belonged to a neighbor - as did everything else on a 10-foot strip of what Mr. Ward believed to be his yard.

ODOT has offered Mr. Ward $300 compensation for its planned taking of the small parcel of property. The figure includes $50 for a flowering bush next to the tree.

But the state is balking at paying the $3,000 that Mr. Ward said he requested; his asking price includes the tree and strip of land in question.

So Mr. Ward, who moved to Box Road in 1969, is holding out on accepting the state's deal.

"I don't care what they say - I still want that ground," he said. "I've been paying taxes on it. It was surveyed when I purchased it. Now they're telling me it's all wrong."

Transportation department officials say it is not unusual for rural land surveys to be "off by a couple of feet," but it's the state's obligation to produce as accurate a survey as possible.

"It's not ODOT's responsibility to help resolve a problem that someone else caused for them. We've run into survey issues all the time," said David Dicke, the real estate administrator at ODOT's district office in Bowling Green who has 20 years' experience with the department's land acquisitions.

The state wants to use a small part of the land of Eugene Ward, on Box Road near Grand Rapids, Ohio, for the new
U.S. 24. ODOT is offering Mr. Ward $300 for the land; Mr. Ward is holding out for $3,000. A surveyor s measurement is in question. The state says past errors are common in acquisition cases. The state wants to use a small part of the land of Eugene Ward, on Box Road near Grand Rapids, Ohio, for the new U.S. 24. ODOT is offering Mr. Ward $300 for the land; Mr. Ward is holding out for $3,000. A surveyor s measurement is in question. The state says past errors are common in acquisition cases.
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Often, Mr. Dicke said, farmers anticipate that parts of their neighbors' fields will become orphaned by road projects, and they make deals ahead of time to buy or swap for those pieces.

Statewide, ODOT buys several thousand parcels annually, Mr. Dicke said. Some are complete takes, but many, like the situation involving Mr. Ward, are partial acquisitions of just the land needed for the project involved.

"More than 80 percent" of ODOT's land acquisitions are settled through negotiation, the real estate administrator said. But if necessary, the state has legal authority to seize the property it declares necessary for construction and to use temporary access over additional land during construction.

Since 2006, the transportation department has obtained a little more than 1,000 acres from about 180 different landowners to assemble the right-of-way for the new U.S. 24 in Henry and Lucas counties. The land has included 890 acres classified as agricultural, 60 residential acres, 31 industrial acres, and 25 commercial acres, and involved 37 residences and 10 farm structures.

Each piece is appraised separately, Mr. Dicke said. There is no standard compensation for a set amount of land, or a tree, or a flowering bush.

"Ultimately, the issue is, what does something contribute to a property?" he said. "What's the loss of a lone tree compared to one of 30? It's all based on cost and property value."

There is no compensation, however, for a reduction in market value strictly because a road is built nearby.

"We pay for what we acquire. If you have property backed up [to the right-of-way] with no touch, it's not considered a compensable situation in Ohio," Mr. Dicke said.

While construction officially began last month west of Henry County Road 4A, the portion east of there to Waterville won't start until next year, so right-of-way acquisition there is unfinished.

U.S. 24 has been "a pretty good project," Mr. Dicke said, "but we're going to have some that go to court."

Sometimes, the potentially litigious conflicts don't arise until after construction is finished.

Along the stretch of U.S. 24 between Napoleon and Defiance, most of the construction to widen a two-lane road to four lanes was done within right-of-way the state bought in the 1960s when it moved the route onto a new alignment between the two cities in place of a twisting course along the Maumee River.

But as part of related construction of an interchange at State Rt. 281 in Defiance County's Richland Township, ODOT relocated part of Elliott Road across a corner of Troy Flory's farm.

Mr. Flory contends that starting late last summer, after construction of the new Elliott Road was substantially finished, parts of his field near the road became more flood-prone, which he claims is a result of field tile under the roadway having been crushed by the weight of construction equipment.

That tile damage, he said, also sent debris into the main drainage pipe leading from his and neighbors' property toward the Maumee River, plugging that pipe and causing it to rupture in two places in his field. Mr. Flory also suspects flooding in his basement that had not been a problem before the construction also could be a result of ODOT's project.

"We never had problems like this, never," said Barbara Flory, Mr. Flory's mother, who lives next door and has lived on Elliott Road since 1968.

"In court, ODOT said that if the Florys have trouble with the tile system, they would fix it," said Mr. Flory, alluding to the Defiance County Common Pleas Court hearing of the state's condemnation case involving the Flory farm. "The bottom line is, I would like our tile system to work the way it did before they built the road."

But officials at ODOT's district office in Lima, Ohio, which managed the Route 281 interchange construction, said their contractor installed new tile along the relocated road to bypass existing pipes beneath it and that flooding was not unknown on the Flory land before construction began.

"We have aerial photographs showing wet areas there before we went in," said Tim Burkepile, the district deputy director. "I think we've done everything we could to date. [Mr. Flory] still has the right to go to the Court of Claims."

Defiance County Engineer Warren Schlatter agreed that drainage problems pre-existed on the Flory property but said the road construction probably worsened it.

Other area landowners addressed drainage problems they believed were caused by the highway work by making repairs themselves and then billing them to ODOT, Mr. Schlatter said. But Mr. Flory said he can't afford the thousands of dollars he believes replacing his field's tiles will cost, and he's reluctant to petition the county for a public takeover of the drainage because tight-budgeted neighbors would be on the hook for some of the cost if that occurred.

Mr. Dicke, who as a Bowling Green district employee is not involved with Mr. Flory's situation, said field drainage is one of the biggest wild-card issues with highway projects because it's often impossible to get tile diagrams "unless you find a local installer who has great records and was used by everybody."

More commonly, Mr. Dicke said, ODOT relies on whatever incomplete information it can get and directs project contractors to address any anomalies in the field as they arise.

"We'll go back and fix it if there's a problem," Mr. Dicke said. "Some of this stuff doesn't show up until you get a three-inch rain two years later."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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