Ohio Court: Cities Cannot Immediately Seize Private Property When Not For Roads

Court’s ruling places important limits on “quick-take” eminent domain power

Columbus, OH – An Ohio Court ruled late yesterday that the City of Perrysburg’s attempt to immediately seize the land of eleven local homeowners exceeds its power, given the Ohio Constitution’s protection of private property rights.

The 1851 Center’s victory curtails the abuse of a practice known as “quick-take,” where governments claim to immediately own private property upon the filing of a Complaint, before any hearing or trial. While the Ohio Constitution sanctions this immense power for “making or repairing of roads,” local governments have increasingly sought to use quick-take for many other purposes.

In striking down the City’s attempt to use quick-take here, Judge Woessner of the Wood County Probate Court concurred that the practice cannot be expanded beyond roads, holding as follows:

  • “[T]he proposed appropriations are for . . . ‘other municipal purposes,’ as well as references to ‘installing pedestrian walkways and sidewalks’ as well as ‘for providing for public utilities.’ This Court finds that if the legislature intended for ‘quick-take’ procedures to extend to other areas, those other areas would have accordingly been referenced somewhere . . . They are not.”
  • “The Court further finds that expanding ‘quick take’ immediate possession of private property . . . beyond the clearly stated purpose of ‘making or repairing roads’ is not appropriate as a matter of law in appropriation/eminent domain cases. . .”

“The Court’s ruling is a victory for private property rights across Ohio,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “Governments have increasingly been using quick-take for anything and everything, rather than just for roads, intimidating Ohioans and stripping them of their right to mount any legal objection in court. This ruling helps ensure that meritorious arguments against eminent domain will now be heard – – and that in turn means that many more eminent domain abuses will be stopped.”

The City had sought to immediately seize property for sidewalks, a bike path, and what it cryptically referred to as “other municipal purposes.” Ohio cities may still acquire property for such purposes; however the Court’s ruling clarifies that they must attempt to negotiate and agree with homeowners, rather than exercising force as a first option.

Read the Homeowners’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings HERE

Read the Court’s Order HERE

Ohioans Beware: State Issue 2

Proposed Constitutional Amendment would prohibit tax reform without stopping monopolies or marijuana legalization as promised

Columbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law today took action to clarify for Ohioans State Issue 2, which will appear on the November 3, 2015 ballot.

State Issue 2, introduced as an attack on the marijuana legalization effort of State Issue 3, proposes to amend Section 1e of Article II of the Ohio Constitution to specify numerous purposes for which “the power of the initiative shall not be used.” (The “initiative” refers to the people, through submission of petitions, to place issues on the ballot). Those include granting or creating a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel; but also include specifying or determining a tax rate.

Issues that are deemed to violate the new limits, in the opinion of the Ohio Ballot Board, will be required to win an extra election before they can be added to the Ohio Constitution.

There has been very little public debate on the issue leading up to the election, and many citizens are largely unaware of the details of proposed amendment. Accordingly, in its Policy Briefing on State Issue 2, released today, the 1851 Center explained the following:

  • State Issue 2 is not an “anti-monopoly amendment.” The Ohio General Assembly will be left entirely free to create monopoles and rejected language that would have tied its own hands.
  • State Issue 2 precludes tax reform instead of monopolies. While Issue 2 would not stop government from creating monopolies, it would stop citizens from initiating tax reform. Ohioans would be prohibited from using the initiative to eliminate or reduce any state or local income tax, severance tax, sales tax, property tax, or other tax.
  • State Issue 2 would not preclude marijuana legalization. This issue will only override Issue 3 if it gets more votes than Issue 3, and even then, litigation is likely to preclude that effect.
  • Issue 2 is the result of a questionable political process. Only after those supporting the marijuana amendment submitted their signatures did the Ohio General Assembly spring into action, and change rules in midstream. If legislators are successful on this occasion, there is nothing stopping them from again laying in the weeds and changing the rules of the game once any citizen initiative is completed.
  • Issue 2 would allow the Ballot Board to stifle any Initiative. “The opinion of the Ohio ballot board,” without judicial review, determines whether the Ballot Board can impose additional hurdles on citizen initiatives. No standards or criteria are specified other than the Ballot Board’s “opinion.”

“The messaging behind State Issue 2 appears to be built upon the mistruths that it prevents monopolies and would stop the proposed marijuana monopoly if enacted – – neither is accurate: this issue is simply an attack on Ohioans’ initiative rights,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “Issue 2 simply proposes that legislators should have a monopoly on the power to create monopolies. This change would simply force special interests to fund politicians’ campaigns, rather than directly promoting their issues to the public.”

Ohioans appear particularly unaware that the proposed amendment would eliminate their ability to use the initiative to advance any number of issues having nothing to do with monopolies, including any effort at tax reform, since the proposal would stifle an amendment that would “specify or determine a tax rate.”

“Nationwide, it has been proven that the citizen initiative is the most effective method of reforming excessive state and local taxes, which Ohio certainly maintains. Because current political leadership has proved unwilling to tackle these problems, Ohioans will need the initiative in the future,” added Thompson

Read The 1851 Center’s Short Policy Brief on State Issue 2 HERE

Ohio Cities May Not Immediately Seize Rural Township Properties

Eminent Domain Abuse Continues as Cities Attempt to Seize Land Beyond Their Borders, Overuse “Quick-Take”

farmColumbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law has moved to counter the aggressive legal tactics taken by the City of Perrysburg, Ohio to immediately seize the land of eleven Ohio homeowners, including property well beyond city limits.

The homeowners’ defense take aim at abusive eminent domain practices used with increasing frequency as Ohio legislators have flooded the state with extra public funds for all types of road and transportation projects.

The first practice, extra-territorial takings, occurs when a city attempts to forcibly seize land beyond city limits, typically in a township. The second, known as “quick-take,” occurs when local governments seize homeowners’ land immediately, prior to any trial or defense.

To counter these tactics, the 1851 Center has moved for a ruling in favor of the Perrysburg homeowners, who were in late September sued by the City, asserting the following:

  • Ohio cities lack constitutional authority to use eminent domain to seize property located in an Ohio township, particularly for non-essential “urbanization” projects such as sidewalks and bike paths.
  • Ohio cities lack constitutional authority to immediately seize property through quick-take, prior to any trial or hearing, when the public project is for something other than “making or repairing roads.”
  • Ohio’s constitutional protection of private property rights is significantly greater than that of the federal constitution, requiring that all doubts be strictly construed against governments seeking to seize Ohioans’ properties.

In response to the 1851 Center’s Motion, the Wood County Probate Court Judge David Woessner on October 16 ruled “plaintiff shall not take immediate possession of defendants’ property nor begin any construction on defendants’ property pending this Court’s rulings on the issues raised in the October 14 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.”

“Ohioans living in rural townships would never contemplate a city government seizing their property overnight, to ‘urbanize’ and ‘update’ it, particularly when those township residents have no right to vote for or against the city officials doing the taking; there is simply no democratic accountability,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “This practice is essentially indistinguishable from having one’s land forcibly taken by Canada, Mexico, or even worse, Michigan.”

“Likewise, situations where Ohioans’ land is taken overnight, prior to any trial, hearing, or compensation, must be minimized to the most urgent circumstances only – – not expanded as is the case here.”

Read the Homeowners’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings HERE.

Federal Court: Cities’ Rental Licensing and Inspection Requirements Unconstitutional

Fourth Amendment secures property rights of landlords from unlawful searches and occupational licensing regulations in Ohio and nationwide

forrentColumbus, OH – The Southern District of Ohio today ruled that the City of Portsmouth’s occupational licensing requirements imposed upon landlords – – rental property inspections and licensing fees – – violates the Fourth Amendment to the United State Constitution.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law’s victory on behalf of Portsmouth rental property owners Ron Baker, Nancy Ross, Thomas Howard, and Darren Oliver means that indiscriminate and warrantless government inspections of rental properties are unconstitutional nationwide, and that unlawfully-extracted “rental inspection fees” must be returned to the rental property owners who paid them.

These property owners had long rented their property in Portsmouth without license or inspections, and their properties had never been the subject of complaint by tenants, neighbors, or others. However, the City threatened to criminally prosecute and even imprison these landlords if they continued to rent their homes without first submitting to an unconstitutional warrantless search of the entire interior and exterior of these homes.

Judge Susan Dlott, of the Western Division of the Southern District of Ohio, held as follows:

  • “[T]he Court finds that the Portsmouth [Rental Dwelling Code] violates the Fourth Amendment insofar as it authorizes warrantless administrative inspections. It is undisputed that the [Rental Dwelling Code] affords no warrant procedure or other mechanism for precompliance review . . . the owners and/or tenants of rental properties in Portsmouth are thus faced with the choice of consenting to the warrantless inspection or facing criminal charges, a result the Supreme Court has expressly disavowed under the Fourth Amendment.”
  • “The inspections are also significantly intrusive. As the Supreme Court has noted, the ‘physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.’”
  • “The search inspection sheet details eighty items to be inspected throughout the entirety of the rental property. The Court thus concludes that the intrusion is significant.”
  • “Taking into account the above factors—the significant expectation of privacy, the substantial intrusion into the home, and the inefficacy of the warrantless inspections on the proffered special need—the Court finds the warrantless inspections are unreasonable.”
  • “Having determined that the Code is not saved by special needs or the closely regulated industry exceptions, the Court concludes that the Code’s failure to include a warrant provision violates the Fourth Amendment.”

Both the United States and Ohio Supreme Court have invalidated warrantless inspections of rental property, and repeatedly held that warrantless administrative inspections of business property are generally invalid, absent exigent circumstances.

Nevertheless, Ohio cities had vigorously sought to collect licensing fees from area landlords, and the warrantless searches served as the lynchpin to each of these goals. Ordinances such as Portsmouth’s Rental Dwelling Code established an absolute prohibition on renting out property within a community – – even though the landlord may have long done so and even though his or her property may be in pristine condition – – without a government-approved license that cannot be acquired without first paying a $100 annual fee per rental home and submitting to an open-ended warrantless search of every area of the property, inside and out.

“The Federal Court’s ruling yesterday is a victory for all property owners and tenants. Local government agents do not have unlimited authority to force entry into Ohioans’ homes or businesses. To the contrary ‘houses’ are one of the types of property specifically mentioned by the Fourth Amendment; and Ohioans have a moral and constitutional right to exclude others, even government agents, from their property. Entry requires either a warrant or an emergency, and neither is present with respect to these suspicion-less rental inspections,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“Government inspections of one’s home frequently results in arbitrary orders to make thousands of dollars worth of untenable improvements to even the most well-maintained properties. These enactments were nothing more than a set of back-door tactics to collect revenue on the backs of Ohio property owners, while attempting to chase ‘the wrong type of owners’ out of town.”

Read the Federal Court’s Order HERE
 

October 4, 2015: Columbus Dispatch: Rental inspections ruled unconstitutional

October 2, 2015: WDTN-TV 2: Federal judge rules Ohio city’s warrantless rental property inspections are unconstitutional

October 1, 2015: Portsmouth Daily Times: The original Portsmouth licensing fee declared unconstitutional

Update: Amish Daughter Healthy Despite Health Care “Experts”

In this picture, taken September 24, 2015 at the Hershberger’s roadside stand — Sarah (2nd from right) with her father and four of her nine siblings.

Yesterday I visited the home of Andy and Anna Hershberger to deliver the good news that the Medina County Probate Court had at long last formally terminated the guardianship it had created over their now 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.

A government hospital, Akron Children’s Hospital, sought to establish the guardianship to take Sarah from her Amish parents and seven siblings to force chemotherapy on her, even though all signs indicated that the chemotherapy itself appeared to be killing her, was certain to sterilize her, and would no doubt permanently change her life for the worse, even if she were to survive it.

The parents objected, seeking to treat Sarah’s mild form of cancer with a less invasive alternative treatment that appeared to be succeeding. It was at that time – – June of 2013 – that one of the State’s doctors testified that absent “immediate chemotherapy” Sarah would certainly be dead within six months. The court found this evidence compelling.

As the Amish community was put in touch with the 1851 Center, court battles ensued. Ultimately, those battles resulted in protecting Andy and Anna Hershberger’s fundamental constitutional right to make important health care decision for their daughter.

Two years later, having never undergone chemotherapy, Sarah couldn’t be healthier. Court records disclosed at yesterday’s hearing indicated the following:

  • “[Sarah] exhibits no symptoms of lymphoma”
  • “There are no reports or indications that Sarah cannot keep up with her work or her siblings on a daily basis.”
  • “Medicine is not always right, as evidenced by Sarah’s survival in the face of ‘certainty’ she would die without treatment”
  • “There is no need for Sarah’s health to be on the Court’s radar”

This case exposed the worst of the alignment between health care “experts,” Ohio’s big hospital lobby, and faulty government legislation:

  • The statute at issue, still on the books, gives Ohio judges the freedom to overrule suitable parents when they hold a differing opinion as to the “best interests of the child.”
  • Government hospitals put forth so-called experts to testify that there is only one way to treat a particular ailment, and that “one best way” must be imposed through forced health care, even over parents’ thoughtful objections.
  • Average Ohio parents lack the resources to hire an expert doctor to rebut the so-called “expert” doctor that their government is using against them (funded by their own tax dollars).
  • So long as government locks in “the one best treatment” by forcing all to comply with that protocol, medical innovation and experimentation will suffer.

Fortunately for Sarah, the Amish community is not conventional, and refused to bow to government commands. We at the 1851 Center are proud to have played a role in defending suitable Ohio parents’ moral and constitutional right to make important health care decision for their children.

But this battle continues. Ohio suffers from a cavalcade of health care “experts”, eager to deprive of us of our autonomy in light of their “certainty” that they know what is best for us.

But as this now-closed saga has proven, these experts have no skin in the game, arrogantly pontificate without fear of consequences, and are in fact frequently wrong.

Ohioans cannot afford to trust their health or their children to government expertise. We have already been swept into a system whereby we are forced to fund much of what now passes for health care in our state and nation, whether we use it or not. But the matter of whether we must be forced to use itis another matter entirely.

The Ohio General Assembly – – members of which laud health care freedom, family values, and parental choice while campaigning for office – – cannot justify maintenance of Ohio’s wide-open and highly subjective “best interests of the child” test. This test allows county judges to overrule health care, educational, and other important decisions of suitable Ohio parents. Once overruled, children can be immediately seized from their homes.

In the wake of Sarah’s case, this concept came to be known as “medical kidnapping.”

The Hershberger’s case is a lesson for all of us: we’re not as smart as we think we are. Knowledge is decentralized, and when in doubt, those closest to the situation, families (and not government experts with special designations next to their names) must make life-altering decisions.

Further, Sarah’s good health bolsters the case against forced health care that we supposedly cannot live without (literally, in this case).

It is now time for Ohio legislators to protect Ohio families from wayward judges. This can be done by reforming Ohio’s unconstitutional “best interests of the child” test.

In the meantime, Ohioans must continue to question authority.

Maurice Thompson
Executive Director
1851 Center for Constitutional Law

Watch a 2013 video on the case from Reason.tv:

reason_amish

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Proposed Amendment Will Strengthen Ohio’s Term Limits on Legislators

termlimitColumbus, OH – Today, the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law secured the approval necessary for a coalition of good government advocates to begin the circulation of a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit state legislators to no more than eight years in each House and twelve total years at the Statehouse.

The proposal “To Strengthen Ohio Term Limits” today cleared the Ohio Ballot Board, after obtaining Attorney General certification ten days earlier. Petitions will now be circulated by a coalition of Ohioans backed by U.S. Term Limits, the organization responsible for first introducing term limits to Ohio through a 1992 constitutional amendment.

The proposed amendment will likely appear on the November 2016 ballot, so long as 304,000 valid signatures are submitted by early July of 2016.

The Amendment would provide that, in Ohio:

  • No person shall hold any combination of elected legislative offices for greater than twelve years, total.
  • No person shall hold the same elected legislative office for greater than eight years, total.
  • No person shall hold an elected legislative office if the term limits in this Amendment would forbid that person from completing the full term for that office.

The Amendment would not count years in office accrued prior to its passage.

This effort comes in response to legislators’ creation of a commission – – “The Constitutional Modernization Commission” – – to attempt to increase their own terms of office by rolling back or eliminating Ohio’s current term limits. Several legislators have indicated this to be the overwhelming purpose behind the Commission, which consists solely of legislators, former politicians, lobbyists, and political donors.

“Ohioans should be disturbed to learn that state legislators appear poised to attempt to shred the very term limits Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to place upon them,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “This Amendment will end the abusive ‘musical chairs’ practice whereby some legislators remain in power for decades, losing touch with their communities and constituents and making better connections with politically-connected interests in Columbus.”

“The longer a public official holds office, the more likely he or she is to see government as the solution to every problem, and the less likely he or she is to reform serious problems created by government. The United State Congress perfectly illustrates this.”

Members of the coalition include those responsible for passing Ohio’s original term limits on legislators in 1992, eliminating Ohio’s estate tax in 2011, and passing the Health Care Freedom Amendment in 2011.

Read the Full Text of the Amendment HERE

Read 1851 Center Op-Ed on Improving Ohio Term Limits HERE

Read further media reports on this term limits effort HERE

Private Pipeline Companies May Not Immediately Seize Ohioans’ Properties

Rampant Eminent Domain Abuse Continues Throughout Rural Ohio; However, Ohioans Have Legal Defenses

farmColumbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law today moved to counter the aggressive legal actions taken by Texas Eastern Transmission, a private Texas pipeline corporation, against Ohioans Roger and Lana Barack of Belmont County, alongside hundreds of other Ohio landowners.

The Barack family’s opposition takes aim at abusive eminent domain practices frequently used by private out-of-state corporations to seize Ohioans property by force, and without legitimate compensation.

More specifically, the 1851 Center’s opposition asserts the following:

  • Recent federal court decisions reaffirm and revitalize the principle that Congress may not delegate its power, including the power to seize property, to purely private companies: taking of Ohioans property without sufficient government oversight is unconstitutional.
  • Government agencies must provide Ohio landowners with notice of any hearings that may result in government permission allowing the seizing of their properties. In this case, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) failed to notify Ohioans of the proceedings affecting their properties.
  • Federal approval of a pipeline route does not mean that private pipeline companies may immediately seize Ohioans private property: the Ohio Constitution prevents “quick takings” other than in the case of roads and emergencies. Even with federal approval, pipeline companies must abide by the Ohio Constitution.

“While we fully support energy development in eastern Ohio, that development does not preclude Ohioans’ property rights – – through an unholy alliance of government and big business, both state and federal statutes claim to authorize private pipeline companies to take Ohioans property. However, Ohioans should know that even in the case of federally-approved pipelines, they maintain important constitutional rights protecting their property: in many cases, private pipeline companies altogether lack the eminent domain authority they claim to have; and even where such authority may be legitimate, these companies may not immediately seize Ohioan’s properties,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“Simply asserting the proper defenses can force pipeline companies to choose a pipeline route that goes around objecting landowners properties, or for enterprising Ohioans, raise offers for their land by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Section 19, Article I of the Ohio Constitution protects property rights above and beyond the federal baseline protections, forbidding takings that are not for legitimate “public use,” and forbidding immediate takings, other than in limited circumstances.

Read the Landowners’ Opposition to the Pipeline Company’s “Motion for Immediate Possession” HERE.

 


January 23, 2015: Sandusky Register: Public events announced on proposed gas pipeline

January 15, 2015: Natural Gas Intel: Ohio Couple Fighting Eminent Domain For Tetco Project

Ohio Mayor Sues Husband and Wife for $25,000 for Criticizing His Performance

Maple Heights Mayor sues to silence local bloggers for “defamation” and “emotional distress,” violating their right to free speech; 1851 files countersuit

bloggercolorColumbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law today moved to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Mayor of Maple Heights, Ohio, Jeffrey Lansky, against a husband and wife who questioned the Mayor’s policies through their blog, Maple Heights News.

The action, filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, comes in response to the Mayor’s September Complaint alleging “defamation” and “emotional distress,” and demanding $25,000 in damages from the Brownlees. This is the fourth defamation-type action that Mayor Lansky has filed against his political opponents.

This latest lawsuit attacks an editorial article Lynde Brownlee authored in July suggesting that the Mayor’s record had failed to live up to his 2011 campaign promises on a number of fronts. The article strictly addresses Mayor official conduct, and does not use insulting or harsh language.

The Brownlees are defending themselves with the First Amendment, while also relying on the additional free speech protections offered by the Ohio Constitution, guaranteeing “[e]very citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects,” and “no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech, or of the press.”

The lawsuit stands for the following well-established constitutional principles:

  • Political speech regarding a public official’s policies is constitutionally protected, especially when those statements are opinions.
  • Even factually false criticisms of public officials are constitutionally protected, when honest mistakes, since political critiques cannot objectively impose damages or distress on a public official.

The 1851 Center’s defense of the Brownlees further counterclaims to declare Mayor Lansky a “vexatious litigator,” and seeks sanctions against both the Mayor and his legal counsel.

“When voicing their concerns over elected officials’ performance, Ohioans should not be bullied into silence for fear of an expensive lawsuit,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “The right to criticize an elected official’s poor performance is, as a necessary first step to those officials’ removal from office, the highest, best, and most constitutionally-protected form of free speech. It should be encouraged, rather than suppressed.”

The Brownlees write about community affairs in their small town, a suburb of Cleveland, at www.MapleHeightsNews.org. One prominent undercurrent to the case concerns whether political editorials on citizen websites are entitled to the same level of protection as mainstream newspaper, television, and radio media.

Read the Bloggers Motion to Dismiss HERE.

 


December 12, 2014: Ohio Watchdog: Group wants Ohio mayor labeled ‘vexatious litigator’ for suing adversaries

Ohio Supreme Court Argument: Can School Districts Raise Your Taxes Without a Vote?

1851 Center argues that Indian Hill School District violated state law by raising property taxes without a vote, while already running huge budget surpluses and maintaining extravagant cash on hand

supremecourtColumbus, OH – The Supreme Court of Ohio on Tuesday heard oral arguments on whether Ohio school districts need voter permission to raise property taxes that collect tax revenue that the districts do not need or use, even as they run considerable budget surpluses and stockpile cash reserves.

The 1851 Center asserts, on behalf of the taxpayers of the Indian Hill School District, that the District violated state law in 2009 when it raised property taxes by 1.25 mills ($400 per year, on average, for Indian Hill households), without voter permission, while already, without the tax increase, running multi-million dollar budget surpluses and maintaining a free and clear cash reserve of over $25 million.

The case centers around Ohio Revised Code Section 5705.341, which provides “no tax rate shall be levied above that necessary to produce the revenue needed by the taxing district or political subdivision for the ensuing fiscal year,” and “Nothing . . . shall permit . . . the levying of any rate of taxation . . . unless such rate of taxation for the ensuing fiscal year is clearly required by a budget of the taxing district.”

The case also draws upon Section 2, Article XII of the Ohio Constitution, which forbids property taxation “in excess of one per cent of its true value in money for all state and local purposes,” except by approval of the voters.

“If Indian Hill – – Ohio’s wealthiest school district – – can use public budgeting gimmicks to raise property taxes without a vote, then any school district in Ohio will be able to follow suit. A victory in this case is important to protecting taxpayers here and also in many other school districts,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law.

“Running exorbitant budget surpluses and maintaining a thick bank account may echo fiscal responsibility to some; however, this means the school district is taking from taxpayers money that it does not need- – over-taxing them rather than allowing them to keep and use their own money for their families’ betterment.”

Watch the oral argument HERE.

The Ohio Supreme Court previews the argument HERE.

Legal Center to High Court: Cleveland-Area Stormwater Tax Unconstitutional

Northeast Ohio Sewer District tax on “impervious surfaces” is without legislative authorization, and is a property tax without the required voter approval

stormwaterColumbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law late yesterday submitted to the Ohio Supreme Court its Merit Brief asserting that the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, a Cleveland-Akron area administrative agency, lacks authority to regulate property in response to rainwater, which is not sewage, and even if it has such authority, may not impose a stormwater-related tax without a vote.

The Sewer District seeks to levy a tax on “impervious surfaces” on hundreds of thousands of Northeast Ohio residential and business property owners. These surfaces include roofs, patios, driveways, and parking lots, and are taxes levied based upon the square footage of each. The District maintains that this is a means of addressing rain-related erosion, run-off, and flooding.

Although such districts’ authorities often claim that settlement agreements with the federal EPA mandate such programs, such settlements mandate no particular course of action and do not permit agencies to transgress the Ohio Constitution.

Joining the 1851 Center on the Brief is the Ohio Real Estate Investors Association. Objecting to the taxes and regulations are several Cleveland-area municipalities, as well as numerous property-owner and business organizations, including the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, Greater Cleveland Association of Building Owners and Managers, and the Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association.

The 1851 Center’s amicus brief argues that a sewer district, as an administrative agency of defined and limited powers, has no authority to impose taxes and regulations related to rainwater falling from the sky, i.e. something other than sewage. The brief further maintains that even if the agency had power to address rainwater, it may not tax property owners because the Ohio Constitution prohibits the raising of property taxes without voter approval through a tax levy election.

The 1851 Center’s brief asserts the following:

 

  • Pursuant to the Ohio Constitution, the General Assembly can only confer administrative power on an agency, and such agencies may not make policy.

 

  • The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District seeks to manage stormwater – – rain, essentially. The legislature, however, fully aware that it rains and snows in Cleveland, gave the Sewer District no such authority.

 

  • The Sewer District maintains no power to levy a tax without voter approval.

 

  • Although labeled a “fee,” the stormwater fee meets the legal standards of a tax because it is levied without regard to use, on certain property owners who gain no particular benefit from paying it, to advance goals that benefit the general public.

 

“Agencies like this are entirely unaccountable to the public, and this case stands for the principles that such agencies cannot take control of every facet of our lives, down to rainwater and the size of our patios, while taxing development in a manner that punishes and discourages it, with no regard to economic factors or public approval,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law.

“The Sewer District’s tax on impervious surfaces, including nearly every patio, rooftop, and driveway in Northeast Ohio, bares a far closer resemblance to sewage than does rainwater, and the District must consider less invasive methods to dealing with rain, which we have managed to deal with without taxation for all of human civilization.”

Oral arguments will likely take place in the fall.

Read the Amicus Brief here.