Sunday, July 18, 2004

Norwood battle puts life on hold


Owners await court decision

By Steve Kemme
Enquirer staff writer

NORWOOD - In many respects, time has stopped for Maria and Jim McBreen.

They want to move, but can't. They would like to paint the house they have lived in for the past 10 years. But they don't dare spend the money.

"We can't do anything with the house because we don't know what to expect," Maria McBreen said. "We don't know how long we'll be here. We're stuck."

Dr. David Dahlman, a chiropractor, doesn't know if his business, the Hyde Park Holistic Center, will be allowed to continue operating on Edmondson Road.

The McBreens, who have two young boys, and Dahlman share the same dilemma as the other people who live and work in the small, triangular-shaped neighborhood between Edwards Road and Interstate 71: They're all waiting.

Their neighborhood is the object of a legal tug-of-war pitting Norwood, 66 property owners and the developers of the proposed Rookwood Exchange against five property owners and the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm in Washington, D. C.

The fight has dragged on for two years and could continue for two more years or longer.

The five property owners - three businesses, a landlord and a homeowner - have challenged Norwood's use of eminent domain to seize their properties and to turn them over to Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate and the Miller-Valentine Group. The developers want to build the Rookwood Exchange, a $125 million complex of offices, shops, housing and restaurants. The homes and the businesses on all 71 properties in the neighborhood would have to be demolished for the project.

Sixty-six property owners, including the McBreens, have agreed to sell to the developers for a minimum of 25 percent above fair market value. But the developers won't buy the properties until they're assured of acquiring the entire site. That's why Norwood acted to seize the properties of the five holdout owners and transfer them to the developers.

The 66 willing property owners who want to sell are in limbo. Because they're under contract with the Rookwood Exchange developers, they can't try to sell to other buyers.

Even if they could try, the prospect of demolition would scare off potential buyers.

In June, a Hamilton County judge upheld Norwood's right to seize the property, but chastised the city for declaring the neighborhood blighted.

The Institute for Justice, which is representing the holdouts for free, plans to appeal. But first, the courts have to decide the price Norwood must pay for those five properties.

That will involve five jury trials before five different Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judges. Tim Burke, an attorney representing Norwood, predicted that decisions would be made by year's end.

After that, the Institute of Justice would file its appeal, which could take six months to a year for the 1st District Court of Appeals to decide, Burke said.

The holdouts say they will take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

"We're prepared to go all the way in protecting the people's property rights," said Scott Bullock, attorney with the Institute of Justice.

Burke doesn't think the Ohio Supreme Court, much less the U.S. Supreme Court, would agree to hear the case. But Bullock said the judge's criticism of Norwood's blight declaration will strengthen the appeal's chances.

Their future in others' hands

In the meantime, Michelle and Rob Vogelsong, who have three children, continue to pay mortgages on two houses. They moved out of the Norwood neighborhood last August anticipating that the dispute would be resolved by now and their house would have been sold to the developer.

To pay the bills, they have exhausted Rob's pension fund and they have begun tapping into Michelle's pension fund from a previous job. She has been working for the Norwood clerk of court's office since January.

"We're going to have to work until we're 100 years old," said Michelle Vogelsong, managing a laugh.

"It's aggravating. People who aren't even residents here are holding up the best thing that's happened to Norwood in a long while," she said.

The Rookwood Exchange could generate up to $2.72 million a year in tax revenue for financially troubled Norwood, city officials predict.

But Carl and Joy Gamble, who have lived there for 35 years, are fighting to stay.

Like the other holdouts, they have hired attorneys to represent them in the property valuation trials.

They realize they could wind up receiving a lot less money for their house if the appeal effort fails than if they had agreed to sell to the Rookwood Exchange developers.

"There's a principle involved here," she said. "It's our home."

The long wait is draining for residents on both sides of the dispute.

"The hardest part is not knowing," Maria McBreen said. "It's waiting for other people to make the decision on whether you leave or stay."

Eminent domain timeline

Early 2002 - Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate and the Miller-Valentine Group announce plans to build the $125 million Rookwood Exchange project. Developers soon begin negotiating with the property owners.

Aug. 26, 2003 - Norwood City Council adopts an urban renewal plan calling the neighborhood "blighted" and "deteriorating," based on a study paid for by the developers. Council approves an agreement with developers allowing the Rookwood Exchange project to proceed.

Sept. 9, 2003 - Norwood City Council approves a resolution declaring its intent to seize the properties of the seven home and business owners who don't want to sell. At this point, 64 property owners have agreed to sell.

Sept. 23, 2003- Norwood City Council votes to seize the holdout properties by eminent domain. That day, the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public-interest law firm, files a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court challenging the planned seizures. .

Nov. 7, 2003 - Norwood files lawsuits in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to carry out its plan to seize the holdout properties.

Nov. 25, 2003 - Judge Robert Ruehlman dismisses the Institute for Justice's lawsuit, ruling in favor of Norwood's right to seize the properties. This decision is under appeal.

April 12-15, 2004 - A trial on the lawsuits filed by Norwood takes place before Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Beth Myers.

June 14, 2004 - Myers rules that Norwood can use eminent domain to take the properties. She said that although the neighborhood should not have been designated as "blighted," it is "deteriorating." This ruling also is expected to be appealed.

E-mail skemme@enquirer.com




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