It took just a few minutes Wednesday afternoon for Licking County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Marcelain to approve a temporary restraining order against the owners of land just east of New Albany where LeVeck Commercial Construction & Development began excavation for warehouse construction before it had the proper permits.
Marcelain told New Albany attorney Christopher T. O’Shaughnessy, representing the property owners, that it “sounds like you need a personal meeting” with county officials to address issues the the Licking County Planning Commission detailed in a lawsuit the county prosecutor’s office filed in October.
The lawsuit said that LeVeck Commercial Construction & Development ignored orders to stop work at a 71-acre site at the corner of Worthington Road and Putnam Road, just east of Mink Road and just south of Rt. 161.
Large mounds of dirt and deep trenches on the site were visible Tuesday from Putnam Road, evidence of recent excavation there – including the destruction of a wetland and a lack of erosion control that has allowed sediment to enter local ditches and streams, according to Linda Nicodemus, stormwater manager for the Licking County Soil and Water Conservation District, who said she inspected the site on Dec. 7.
The Advocate reported in February that LeVeck Commercial Construction & Development received Jersey Township zoning approval to build five warehouses with a total of 1 million square feet under roof.
The stop-work order issued to property owners Jersey 1820, Ltd. and Jersey Warehouse in October says the companies failed to obtain required government permits, failed to submit plans and an associated stormwater report for review and approval by the planning commission, failed to establish sediment and erosion control measures, and failed to establish stormwater, sediment and/or water quality basins.
The county argued in its complaint that construction on the site has “caused, continue to cause and, if left unrestrained, will continue to result in irreparable loss or damage.”
Nicodemus testified Wednesday during the hearing at the Licking County Courthouse in Newark that she witnessed the “elimination of wetlands and sediment getting into ditches and onto adjacent property. One wetland is gone and another is being encroached upon.”
Nicodemus said “the number one pollutant in Ohio is sediment,” which is soil particles that fill in rivers and streams and destroy habitats for wildlife.
O’Shaughnessy argued in court that any harm done to wetlands is not irreparable, saying that some wetlands are protected and others are mitigated or replaced.
But if mitigation happens, it’s after the approval of regulatory agencies, and Amy Gill, a Licking County assistant prosecutor, argued that land owners Jersey 1820, Ltd., and Jersey Warehouse did not have approved plans or permits to begin construction.
Gill had asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order or a permanent injunction against any more work on the site.
Brad Mercer, planning manager for the Licking County Planning Commission, testified in court Wednesday that county regulations require that if more than one acre of land is going to be disturbed during construction, the developer must have a permit that comes after submitting plans and receiving approval to move forward.
Mercer said that Jersey 1820 submitted plans, but after an initial review during which the county asked for more information, the land owners did not provide the additional details and instead moved ahead with site excavation in violation of county regulations. So the county issued a stop-work order, which Mercer said developer LeVeck ignored and continued with excavation.
That’s when the county filed the lawsuit seeking to halt construction until Jersey 1820 and LeVeck complete the planning process and receive the proper permits.
“The action of Jersey 1820 and its said construction efforts are in violation of a number of applicable regulations policed and enforced by the Licking County Planning Commission,” said the county’s lawsuit. “The said construction efforts were initiated, and continue, prior to the full review and approval of a required construction plan and required Licking County Soil Erosion and Stormwater Permit, all in violation of applicable standards and regulations.”
Support local journalism with a donation to The Reporting Project.
Kristy Hawthorne, program administrator for the Licking County Soil and Water Conservation District, said after the hearing she envisioned that her office and county planning officials would have a meeting with the landowners and developer to make sure they take proper precautions to seed the exposed soil to avoid sediment runoff during the winter, “and work on next steps in the approval process” for the development plan.
Prior to the hearing, Hawthorne said her office is monitoring about 60 construction sites in the county, and “about 25 percent of them are out of compliance.”
The overarching goal of her agency in such cases is to make sure developers have permits and are taking the necessary steps to protect the environment, she said.
“We are fierce defenders of our natural resources,” Hawthorne said, adding that developers “can’t just come in here and do what you want, and you’re not going to come in here and walk over us.”
The county’s lawsuit against the land owners said the planning commission issued the stop-work order on Oct. 9, and that it contacted Richard LeVeck, a principal of Jersey 1820, and discussed the potential to resolve the matter. County officials said in the complaint that they also spoke with an attorney for Jersey 1820, but the company “failed and refused to terminate its said construction efforts.”
O’Shaughnessy wrote in a Nov. 22 court filing in answer to the civil complaint that the property owners deny the accusations against them, and he reiterated in court Wednesday his motion asking the court to deny a restraining order and permanent injunction, and to dismiss the complaint.
Marcelain rejected that motion.
O’Shaughnessy said after the hearing that he would discuss next steps with his clients.
Alan Miller writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon foundation and donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.