Lakefront Homeowner Sues for Cut of $6M Erie Settlement

SANDUSKY, Ohio (CN) – In a long-running dispute over ownership of land on the Lake Erie shoreline, a homeowner filed a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources claiming he was not notified about a $6.1 million settlement.

George Sortino owns property abutting Lake Erie and says in his complaint that the state agency has ignored “the boundary between private and public ownership” by previously asserting that deed owners’ titles are invalid and that it owns part of their properties.

He filed a putative class action against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or ODNR, and the state on Wednesday in Erie County Common Pleas Court. Sortino is represented by Sandusky attorney Margaret Murray.

“In the past ODNR had intentionally and willfully misrepresented to property owners and to the public that the state of Ohio owns a part of their properties, and ODNR had persisted in this campaign of falsehoods despite knowing that it was in conflict with all Ohio laws, with published opinions of the Attorney General of Ohio and the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions,” the lawsuit states.

The legal wrangle has its roots in 14 years of litigation over ownership of land along the coast of Lake Erie, which is fourth largest of the five Great Lakes. Its shoreline in Ohio stretches over 262 miles and eight counties.

The dispute flared up in court after the Buckeye State asserted that it owns all the land below a certain point along the shoreline and started charging homeowners for land leases.

The Ohio Lakefront Group and its 7,000 members sued the state. They claimed the ODNR did not have the authority to take their property without first buying it through ordinary land appropriation proceedings, and argued that the state should honor their deeds.

In May 2016, Ohio agreed to pay $6.1 million to settle the dispute. Sortino says he is one of roughly 15,000 private property owners who did not receive notice of the settlement from the state.

He is asking the court for a declaration that ODNR’s assertion of ownership of his land is an unconstitutional taking of his property and that he and proposed class members have a right to compensation.

“The individual named plaintiff in this complaint did not receive notice of the…settlement, but would have filed a proof of claim had he been advised of the settlement,” the lawsuit states.

Sortino’s attorney, Murray, and the ODNR did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. Kate Hanson, spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general’s office, said she has not seen the lawsuit but that her office typically defers to its clients and responds in court.

ODNR had previously claimed that the state owns all land below an ordinary high water mark set at 573.4 feet above sea level, established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more than three decades ago.

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