The case was the first challenge of property rights laws to reach a state high court since the U.S. Supreme Court last summer allowed municipalities to seize homes for use by a private developer.
“For the individual property owner, the appropriation is not simply the seizure of a house. It is the taking of a home - the place where ancestors toiled, where families were raised, where memories were made,” Justice Maureen O'Connor, for the court.
Portsmouth Mayor Jim Kalb said he didn't yet know much about the ruling, but he said it is unlikely to have a big effect in Portsmouth.
“We've never had to use eminent domain to take property,” he said. “I guess we'll deal with it as it comes up.”
The city threatened to use eminent domain about three years ago against several Second Street property owners who would not sell their property to developer Neal Hatcher.
Hatcher has built several apartment buildings for Shawnee State University students to rent. SSU does not own the Campus View apartments. Instead, it saved money by having Hatcher build them.
Although many have sold already, several property owners have still refused to sell to him.
Hatcher was not available for comment on Thursday.
Property owner Harry Kyle is one of those who has not sold. He said he may file a class action suit against the city for the eminent domain threat in light of the court ruling.
“I was right and they were all wrong,” he said. “They were totally wrong. The city of Portsmouth owes me an apology and all the property owners an apology.”
Kyle said the city violated the property owners' civil rights.
But SSU Vice President and General Counsel Stephen Donohue said the court ruling is “super” and proved that SSU was right all along on the issue.
“Anyone who says this ruling doesn't uphold us hasn't read the opinion,” he said. “I ask you, don't the dorms look good on Second Street? And how bad do you think those houses in the middle of them look?”
Donohue was referring to the houses that the owners have not sold to Hatcher. He said a slum and blight study was undertaken before the threat of eminent domain was made.
“The (Supreme Court) decision was exactly about what the city and Shawnee State was trying to do,” Donohue said.
He cited page 25 of the court ruling as proof. It reads in part:
“Almost all courts, including this one, have consistently upheld takings that seized slums and blighted or deteriorated private property for redevelopment, even when the property was transferred to a private entity, and continues to do so.”
But targeting property because it is in a “deteriorating area” also is unconstitutional because the term is too vague and requires speculation, the court found.
“The reason the Norwood (Cincinnati suburb) city project is unconstitutional was because the city declared the land in question to be a ‘deteriorating area' which the court found to be vague standard,” Donohue said.
Property rights' advocates, business groups and backers of city planning were watching the Ohio case because of the precedent it could set. The ruling comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a case from New London, Conn., that ruled cities can take land for shopping malls or other private development.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Ohio declared a moratorium that prevents local governments from seizing unblighted private property for use by private developers until 2007. A legislative task force is expected to go ahead with reforms when it meets Aug. 31.
“I anticipate that many of our recommendations, combined with today's (Wednesday's) Supreme Court decision, will ensure that Ohio sends a strong message to its citizens that their private property rights are secure,” said state Sen. Tim Grendell, chairman of the state's Eminent Domain Task Force.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. JEFF BARRON can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.