COLUMBUS, Ohio - The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the state to speed up compensation to dozens of landowners who suffered losses from flooding near Ohio's largest inland lake.
At issue was how fast 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 between Dayton and Toledo.
The court ruled 5-2 that the landowners had shown "clear and convincing evidence" that the state was in contempt of the court's December 2011 decision ordering compensation.
The three-page ruling gave the state three months to finish appraisals on all properties whose claims relate to a flood level set in 2003, and four months to file settlement cases on the properties.
The court gave the state a month to begin legal action in Mercer County court on all parcels that haven't yet been surveyed because they involve flooding above the 2003 level.
Two justices dissented, saying the state has been moving forward, and that a settlement offer earlier this year indicates Ohio is making efforts.
The state has "hired surveyors and property appraisers. The surveyors have begun surveying the properties at issue, and the appraisers have begun appraising the properties as the surveys are completed," said Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, who was joined in her dissent by Justice Judith Lanzinger.
A DNR spokeswoman said a statement was being prepared.
The decision came one day after the court held a hearing looking for an explanation of the delay. At that hearing, an attorney for the state told the court that the end of 2013 was a reasonable timeframe for completing compensation.
"It has been extraordinarily difficult to find appraisers who are both qualified and willing to do the work," Michael Stokes told justices during an hour-plus hearing in Columbus.
Landowners say a horseshoe-shaped dam the state built in 1997 has led to significant floods almost every year since.
Lawyers for the landowners -- almost all of them farmers -- alleged the state has been dragging 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.
Attorney Bruce Ingram told justices Tuesday that 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. 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 told justices.
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.
The cost of the settlement will go up the longer appraisals take because land values in the area are rising.
Wayne and Janet Doner, who attended Tuesday's contempt of court hearing, 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 Tuesday.