MOUNT VERNON — Berlin Township property owner Darla Holdkamp and her companion, Frank Nagy, have inherited an unresolved issue from the past. The legal status of Leedy Lane, once a section of the county line road which stretched from Ohio 546 to Divelbiss Road between Knox and Richland counties, has been left unresolved for nearly 100 years.
But the day of dispute arrived March 13, when the trustees of Jefferson Township in Richland County petitioned the Richland County Commissioners to vacate the road section. The request led to a joint viewing of the road and a meeting of the Richland and Knox county commissioners on April 16. It was at this meeting that the Knox County Commissioners first heard from Holdkamp and Nagy.
Instead of bringing the issue to a vote, Ed Olson, Richland County Commissioners’ president, suspended the Mansfield meeting “sine die,” a Latin legal term meaning “without day.” In other words, he did not adjourn the meeting, he only temporarily suspended it, without giving a resumption date. He will not be legally required to publish a general notice about its resumption.
Nagy feels Olson did this as part of an attempt to legally maneuver around his and Holdkamp’s objections. Road vacations are normally performed under Ohio Revised Code statute 5553.04, which allows for the vacation of a road after a public hearing. If there are any objections at the hearing, the statute states the proceedings can be discontinued, or they can go to a compensatory hearing, providing for a potential financial settlement to appease dissenters.
ORC statute 5553.045 allows for the vacation of a “non-maintained road.” Such thoroughfares are designated Class X. After a road is given Class X status, it can be closed despite public objections with ORC statute 5553.045 either by a vote of commissioners or by default, because use of the statute triggers a 60-day time table for action. If no action is taken by the end of 60 days, the proposal to vacate automatically becomes policy.
Nagy and Holdkamp said the Richland County Commissioners are taking this route because it gives the commissioners a way to drag their feet, delaying the vote so that even if Knox County officials object, the time table will expire, allowing the road to be vacated over the objections of the Knox County residents and commissioners, and at no financial cost to Richland County or Jefferson Township.
“They don’t want you to vote, because you can deadlock it,” Nagy told the Knox County Commissioners on Monday.
The townships show no evidence of maintenance on this section of Leedy Road in 71 years. Holdkamp said the bridge is the cause for current action.
“It’s a $150,000 insurance liability to whoever owns the bridge,” Holdkamp said.
Holdkamp said she will be put in a bad situation if the road is vacated, not only in terms of maintenance cost, but because the lane will now be on the property of a hostile neighbor, and that building a new driveway would be prohibitively expensive because of the surrounding lowlands. Nagy said he has performed extensive and expensive maintenance on the roadway, and does not intend to do it another year.
Nagy said he and Holdkamp have been preparing their legal fight against the road vacation for over two years, and were prepared for the Richland commissioners’ moves in Thursday’s meeting. Nagy said he and Holdkamp have found appellate court precedence which shows the commissioners cannot use ORC 5553.045 to vacate the road. Nagy said the statute is being invalidly applied, because the road has never been declared Class X. The Knox County Commissioners confirmed this section of road does not have, nor did it ever have, a Class X status.
Nagy and Holdkamp said they have gotten a lot of runaround from some officials, including Knox County Engineer Jim Henry, whom they say told them that it would be hard to find bridge cards for the Leedy Road bridge, then allegedly provided the cards to Jefferson Township officials the following day.
“How did the other side know he had the cards?” Nagy asked.
After meeting with Holdkamp and Nagy, the commissioners asked Assistant Knox County Prosecutor Charles McConville to examine the statutes to see what grounds the commissioners have for opposition. One point noted was that the road in question, although it clearly has not been maintained by the townships for many years, may still be under joint jurisdiction. Although ORC 5553.042 states that a “township shall lose all rights in and to any public road, highway, street or alley which has been abandoned and not used for a period of 21 years,” this only applies after it has been officially vacated. Furthermore, the Richland County Commissioners have been proceeding under the time-limited statute 5553.045.
If the roadway is still classified as being under joint jurisdiction of both townships, the Jefferson Township Trustees may have committed a procedural error in filing for the vacation without consulting their Berlin Township counterparts.
McConville said he will examine the statutes and help the commissioners prepare a statement to send to the Richland County Commissioners. The commissioners hope this will prevent the road vacation by default.
“I think we have to have a meeting and force a vote,” said Knox County Commissioner Robert Wise.
“We came with our hat in our hand, asking for what was due,” Nagy said, adding that the Knox County Commissioners were the first officials who haven’t tried to sidestep the issue.
“We have a moral obligation to oppose this,” said Stockberger.
“I don’t want anything that anybody else who lives on a township road isn’t entitled to,” Holdkamp said. “I just want it safe to traverse.”