SunCoke Energy has produced coke used in steelmaking for nearly a year at its $400 million Middletown facility, but legal battles over the plant continue.
A four-year lawsuit over the zoning for the company’s Yankee Road property will continue after the Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled 4-3 that the owners of a neighboring Monroe property have the right to sue the city of Middletown.
Matthew and Lori Moore had a partial win in the state’s highest court when it partially overturned a decision by the 12th District Court of Appeals. The court said the Moores have the right to sue Middletown since they live immediately near the property in question.
“We intimate no opinion on the merits of the property owner’s due process, equal protection, and police-power claims. We simply hold that the property owners have a right to pursue discovery on those claims,” according to the opinion of the state’s high court’s majority judges.
SunCoke finished construction in late 2011 for its coke plant that supplies AK Steel with coke, a raw material for steelmaking.
The suit by the Moores was one of two law suits concerning SunCoke.
In May, SunCoke Energy, the city of Monroe and SunCoke Watch, a resident group opposed to the coke-making plant, settled a four-year lawsuit.
SunCoke Energy paid Monroe $1.15 million in legal fees and imposed more emission controls that would reduce the amount of airborne coal dust. An environment expert said it was unprecedented for the company to agree to stricter regulations than required by law.
The court said the city’s rezoning did not constitute a taking of their property, as they allege in the suit, and had no legal standing.
“Ohio law holds that a municipality has no authority to appropriate property outside its jurisdictional limits. Thus, we held that the property owner could not establish redressability, and in turn, standing,” according to the majority opinion.
Now the case goes back to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas, said Middletown Law Director Les Landen. A date for the case to be heard in Common Pleas Court has not been set, he said.
Landen said the decision “is not devastating for the city,” but he would have like to have seen the Supreme Court completely uphold the appellate court’s ruling.
The Moores sued the city of Middletown in September 2008 after City Council rezoned a 157-acre parcel in August 2008 that made way for SunCoke Energy to open its Middletown plant.
The property, known in 2008 as the Martin-Black property, was rezoned from low-density residential to general industrial.
Landen said the city believes the Moores didn’t have a legal standing to sue because “(city) ordinances don’t apply to them.”
“Ordinances are for the benefit of the community of the city of Middletown,” he said. “Middletown is doing what’s in the best interest of its residents. If you’re not a resident how can you complain about how something is zoned?”
The Moores allege in their suit filed in Butler County Common Pleas Court the city “failed to consider or analyze the substantial and obvious disadvantages of the rezoning” which includes pollution that would be produced by the coke plant “resulting in the substantial impairment of public health and safety, morals and general welfare.”
The suit claimed the zoning and setback changes were for the benefit of AK Steel, the city’s largest private employer. g.
Oxford attorney Jay Bennett represents the Moores, but he could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit has only had a minimal impact on the city’s finances, Landen said. The city’s insurance company, which has provided counsel for the city, has footed the bill and Landen said his time has been minimal.