Bike path dispute suits heading to trial
LICKING TOWNSHIP - Parties battling over a new bicycle path will meet with Licking County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Marcelain this month for a pre-trial hearing. The focus will be on procedural matters and will likely set a schedule to bring the dispute to trial if necessary. A request that Licking County judges voluntarily remove themselves from hearing the case has been denied.
The dispute, between the TJ Evans Foundation and some Licking Township property owners, The foundation wants to pave the former rail bed for use as a bicycle path, running from Heath to U.S. 40 near Lakewood High School.
The portion in Heath was paved this summer, but a group of Licking Township property owners stopped paving by placing barriers across the fomrer rail bed. Licking Township resident Joe Simon, whose property the former rail bed crosses, said the original railroad had the right to use the property for a rail line. But, since the tracks have been removed it is no longer a rail line and the Evans Foundation, he said, doesn't have the right to pave the rail bed into a bike trail without the residents' permission. The foundation only purchased the railroad's interest in the property via a quitclaim deed, rather than the property itself.
Simon said four years ago, residents who own property along the rail bed signed a petition clearly stating that none of them wants a bike trail placed arbitrarily across his or her property.
After property owners blocked the rail bed on July 30, both sides agreed to try to resolve the dispute and halt any activity on the rail bed. Since both sides were reluctant to initiate legal action. Licking County Prosecutor Ken Oswalt filed suit, naming both parties, asking the court to sort out the ownership claims. Oswalt was surprised, however, when property owners filed suit Sept. 5 claiming that the prosecutor's office "conspired" with the TJ Evans Foundation against the residents and had no right to "inject itself" into a private property dispute.
Assistant County Prosecutor Jim Miller said the county denies the allegations in the suit - abuse of power, conspiracy, and inverse appropriation (handing over property without permission).
Oswalt said the attorney who filed the countersuit was new to the case and agreed to reconsider that step. After that review, Oswalt said the attorney asked the county to agree to take certain positions and not to take certain future positions. "I declined to accept them as they would take their unfounded concerns that the county was aligned with the Evans Foundation and replace them, in my opinion, with clear expressions of the county supporting the residents' position on the property dispute," he said. Oswalt says the county isn't taking sides.
Since the proposed stipulations were rejected, the property owners' suit was not withdrawn.