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Grand Lake St. Marys payment speed questioned

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The state must respond to complaints by dozens of landowners near Ohio’s largest inland lake who say compensation for flooding losses has been delayed again, the state Supreme Court said Wednesday.

At issue is how fast the Department of Natural Resources has responded to a court order to compensate 87 landowners near Grand Lake St. Marys, a 20-square-mile lake between Dayton and Toledo.

Attorneys for the landowners, almost all farmers, argue the state is revoking previous good faith financial offers and saying it will make newer and lower offers.

The attorneys accuse the state of trying to wear the landowners out with constant delays and reduce their compensation “to virtually nothing,” according to a Dec. 13 court filing.

The Natural Resources department has said previously the agency has an obligation to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. The agency told the court last year it met two court-ordered deadlines to speed up compensation. A spokeswoman said the agency was preparing a response to Wednesday’s court ruling.

Landowners say a horseshoe-shaped dam the state built in 1997 has led to significant floods almost every year since.

The state argues it has the right to use newly discovered evidence that it says shows the dam only “minimally increased” the area and length of flooding, according to a Dec. 20 court filing. The landowners say the court has already rejected a similar study.

The Supreme Court ordered an April 30 hearing to hear the state’s response to the landowners’ concerns.

The court ruled in late 2012 that the landowners had shown “clear and convincing evidence” that the state was in contempt of its December 2011 decision ordering compensation. The court gave the state three months to complete the remaining appraisals on properties and four to file lawsuits to take property.

The state said in April 2013 it met those deadlines.

Lawyers for the landowners have alleged the state dragged its feet since the court’s 2011 compensation order, with only eight settlements filed and six of those in the week before the December 2012 contempt of court hearing.

In 2012, the state withdrew a settlement offer of $24 million, or about $5,000 per acre, when presented with a counteroffer of about $27 million, with the extra $3 million including business owners and homeowners without farms.