Opinion: Trumbull cannot use its funds for Kinsman causeway restoration




An Aug. 1 legal opinion provided to Trumbull County Engineer Randy Smith suggests that county money cannot be used to restore washed away parts of the Kinsman Lake Causeway owned by the Lakeland Homeowners Association, but it leaves open the possibility of other funding sources.

On July 20, a portion of the roadway and earthen embankment that dams up Kinsman Lake breached during a huge rain event, eliminating the only way into and out of the Lakelands neighborhood, which contains about 30 homes.

The residents were evacuated another way and have not been able to return to their homes since then except for limited purposes.

The opinion, written by Atty. William Danso, chief of the civil division of the county prosecutor’s office, says Smith requested legal guidance July 25 to find out whether Smith could use $1 million in Trumbull County “local match funding” for unrelated upcoming county road and bridge projects to help with the causeway restoration.

Smith’s office previously paid the $1 million to the Ohio Department of Transportation, but ODOT has offered to return the money and carry out the county projects without the matching county money in order to help the county.

Danso said the questions Smith posed involves a “very unique situation” with scant legal precedent.

But the money the state is willing to return “were paid from public funds and will remain public funds once returned to Trumbull County” and originally came from the county’s road and bridge fund, meaning it can only be used to repair county roads and bridges.

It could be used for Kinsman Township roads, but the Kinsman Lake Causeway, consisting of the earthen portion and concrete spillway, are “owned by the Lakeland Homeowner’s Association and is private property,” Danso’s letter says.

“We have searched for legal authority that would permit public funds to be used to repair or replace a private lake or dam but have been unable to locate any.”

Danso said he checked with an Ohio Department of Natural Resources official and learned that ODNR also is not aware of “any other private dams that have been repaired or replaced using public funds. She was unaware of any county that had found a lawful way to do so. Thus, without clear authority of law, public funds cannot be used to repair or replace the dam in Kinsman Township,” Danso said.

The legal opinion was released to The Vindicator on Thursday by Smith,

Issues connected with how much the county engineer’s office could assist with the repair of the Kinsman Township road on top of the dam are less straight-forward, Danso said.

The county could use county funds to replace the road bed, but it should not be done in a way that could be interpreted as also repairing the private dam, Danso said.

The letter suggested a possible solution might be to “permanently drain the lake.” Then the county could install a culvert or bridge over the creek and enter into an agreement with the homeowner’s association and ODNR that the improvements would not be used as a dam in the future. The association could recreate the lake in the future, but it would have do so at its own expense.

The opinion also suggested the state may have resources available to help the Lakelands residents in ways the county cannot.