COLUMBUS, Ohio – The state has struggled to find qualified appraisers to assess damage for dozens of landowners who suffered losses from flooding near Ohio's largest inland lake, an attorney for Ohio's natural resources division told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Pressed for a completion date for the process, assistant Ohio attorney general Michael Stokes said the end of next year was reasonable.
"It has been extraordinarily difficult to find appraisers who are both qualified and willing to do the work," Stokes told justices during an hour-plus hearing Tuesday in Columbus.
At issue is the speed with which the Department of Natural Resources is responding to a year-old court order to compensate 87 landowners near Grand Lake St. Marys, a 20-square-mile lake about 50 miles southwest of Fort Wayne.
The flooding culprit is a horseshoe-shaped dam the state built in 1997 that the landowners say has led to significant floods almost every year since.
Lawyers for the landowners – almost all of them farmers – allege the state has been dragging its feet since the court's 2011 compensation order. The court agreed to hear arguments over whether the state should be held in contempt.
An attorney for the landowners said three property owners have died since the court's order a year ago and more are likely to pass away before the case is resolved. Attorney Bruce Ingram also disputed the state's argument about appraisers, saying he had a list of 113 state-approved appraisers who could be available.
"That is a complete red herring they could not find appraisers," he said.
Some justices seemed perplexed by the delay and grilled Stokes on why it was taking so long.
"This country fought World War II and completed it in four years," said Justice Paul Pfeifer, himself a farmer near Bucyrus.
Justice Yvette Magee Brown questioned why the state couldn't take more advantage of the "substantial evidence" about flooding collected in the nine years since the case was first filed in county court.
Other justices appeared to side with the state, pointing out that the process of compensating landowners involves several steps, some of them required by law.
"You're disagreeing with the manner with which they've proceeded, but there doesn't seem to be evidence that they've done nothing," said Justice Judith Lanzinger.
About two dozen landowners attended the hearing, including Wayne and Janet Doner, who have seen chronic flooding on their corn and soybean farm in Celina that has left as many as 35 acres unusable.
"We've had 17 loads of sand hauled out – we still have sand in the field today," Janet Doner said.