Aurora in mediation over railroad eminent domain case

City in talks with FirstEnergy subsidiary, Norfolk Southern

BOB GAETJENS Reporter
This rendering shows an aerial view of what a new electric transmission line running down the Norfolk Southern rail corridor through Aurora could look like.

AURORA — A legal dispute between the city of Aurora, Norfolk Southern Railway Co. and American Transmission Systems Inc. over a plan to extend transmission lines along the old Norfolk and Southern Rail corridor continues, but the parties are talking.

FirstEnergy and ATSI, its transmission-focused subsidiary, plan to extend transmission lines along the railroad easement to help support more reliable electric service to 9,600 customers in and around Aurora, according to Mark Durbin, manager of external communications for FirstEnergy.

“We’ve had some productive discussions with the city about finding ways to address our customers’ concerns about the transmission project,” he said. “We obviously remain firmly committed to building the project.”

The project would include 60- to 70-foot-tall utility poles running about 5 miles from the Cantax Substation to Treat Road, then right to the Treat Road Substation. It would help lower frequency and duration of power outages from hours or days to minutes, according to FirstEnergy Project Engineer Bill Beach, speaking at a January 2019 open house.

Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin has said she’s concerned the transmission lines’ unsightliness could decrease property values nearby, including businesses along Route 82’s historic Station District, Greenview Estates, The Oaks, Barrington, Tara at Barrington and others.

However, she also said last week that “FirstEnergy is not going to go away.”

“I think it’s good that the the city has been engaged in ongoing discussions with FirstEnergy regarding finding some middle ground to mitigate the impact of FirstEnergy’s proposal on our community,” said Womer Benjamin.

The city of Aurora filed to take the railroad easement by eminent domain Jan. 31 from Norfolk Southern Railroad, and Portage County Court of Common Pleas Judge Laurie Pittman April 14 approved a motion to intervene in the case by ATSI.

A mediation hearing on the matter is set for July 10.

In its initial filing the city claims it wants the property for the “declared public purpose of a public park/recreation trail and related improvements.”

Much of the discussion in the court filings focuses on whether Norfolk Southern has sold the easement to ATSI.

According to Pittman’s April 14 decision citing ATSI’s earlier statements, Norfolk Southern Railway Co. “transferred the fee simple interest in the substantial property of the subject property to ATSI by quit-claim deed … on December 17, 2019 in exchange for a payment of $5.1 million.”

However, a May 26 filing by the city challenges whether that means ATSI is actually the owner of the easement.

“The fact that ATSI has been permitted to intervene … as a party who claims an interest in the subject property is not a determination that ATSI is, in fact, an owner of the subject property,” as defined under the Ohio Revised Code,” states a May 26 document filed by the city. “Thus, … an ‘owner' for purposes of condemnation proceedings is not one who simply ‘claims’ an interest in the property — it is an actual owner. Under the facts alleged in the complaint, Norfolk Southern is the only fee simple owner of the property.”

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com or @bobgaetjens_rpc.