Ohio Cities, Homeowners at Odds Over Water Protection Rule

By JOHN SEEWER | November 24, 2015

Slivers of land covered with wild grass and shrubs meant to protect drinking water in reservoirs around Ohio have become the source of a squabble among homeowners, cities and state lawmakers.

Called buffer strips, they’re designed to stop pollutants from getting in lakes and rivers. For years now, agricultural states have been encouraging farmers to put them along ditches and streams to cut down fertilizer runoff.

But a battle over the strips of land that create a barrier between reservoirs and manicured lawns has landed in court. Five Ohio cities are challenging a new state law that would allow adjacent homeowners to remove trees and weeds or cut paths through the buffers.

A judge has put a temporary hold on the law and some state lawmakers said this past week that they want to overturn it.

Cities say the vegetation in those buffers, which are city property, is needed to filter out pollutants and stop them from producing the kind of algae that can contaminate drinking water supplies.

Homeowners around two reservoirs near Columbus are upset because they say the buffers are filled with weeds, rodents, and scrub trees that hurt property values and block their views of the water.

“I don’t want to ruin the drinking water either, but I don’t think trimming trees is going to affect that,” said Skip Weiler, who lives along Hoover Reservoir, just north of Columbus. “In the summer, the weeds grow as high as they can grow.”

Since building a house there a dozen years ago, the city, he said, has forced him to take down a fence that was built a foot past his property line and move a pile of firewood that was sitting within the buffer strip.

“I’d maintain it for them and so would every other property owner,” Weiler said.

Columbus officials say the problem is that some homeowners have taken matters into their own hands. They’ve built garages in the buffer strips, cut down large swaths of trees and planted grass all the way to the water’s edge. Some have been taken to court and fined.

“The thing we run up against is people feel they have a small impact on the waterway,” said Rick Westerfield, administrator of the Columbus Division of Water. “It basically comes down to a death by a thousand cuts.”

The state’s decision this past summer to change the law and allow homeowners to take down the vegetation, Westerfield said, runs counter to other programs backed by the state that are designed to protect water quality.

Other cities in Ohio, including Akron and Lima, joined with Columbus to challenge the law. They too want to maintain their rights to control what happens on city-owned land.

Gary Sheely, utilities director in Lima, said the reservoirs there are built much like a dam.

“You can’t have residents tinkering with the vegetation on the dam,” he said. “That could lead to a failure.”

Columbus officials say they’ve tried to work with homeowners and have allowed them in recent years to remove invasive plants and create five-foot wide paths through the buffer strips.

Delaware County Commissioner Barb Lewis said the problem is that the city has been too aggressive in trying to punish the homeowners.

“The residents I’m familiar with want to make sure water is pristine,” she said. “But the enforcement has been overbearing and really has angered the neighbors.”

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