GREEN: Green Law Director Diane Calta will tell the Summit County Board of Elections that a referendum seeking to void a city contract with Nexus should not be eligible for the ballot.

Meanwhile, the city will hold on to the citizen petitions a few more days to give residents the opportunity to review them or reconsider their signatures, with some officials stressing that voiding the settlement does not stop the pipeline from being built but does reverse safety and financial benefits that were gained.

Everyone is still holding a collective breath, waiting for a court to rule on one last property where the homeowner has argued Nexus has no right to use eminent domain to take her property because the partnership is partly foreign-owned.

And a new sound has joined the din: Tree-cutting crews have begun to clear the project’s 8-mile path through this suburb of 26,000 people.

One way or another, the three-year war between this city and the pipeline builders seems to be nearing its end.

Here’s an update on all things Nexus:

Green officials said they were leveraging a rare moment in time when they agreed to settle with the company that has been their nemesis since Nexus announced plans to weave its new 255-mile pipeline through their residential community on its way to Ontario, Canada.

The city was fighting Nexus’ effort to take 2.5 acres of city-owned land through eminent domain, but the city had already lost the case in the lower court and was being told precedence was not on the city’s side since the pipeline had been approved by federal and state authorities.

While waiting for a federal appeals court ruling and expecting the worst, City Council in February quickly reversed course. It squeezed required readings into three consecutive days and approved a settlement by a vote of 4-3.

Nexus gave the city $7.5 million and 20 acres of land near Boettler Park, and agreed to some city oversight of the pipeline.

In return, City Hall would stop opposing the pipeline’s route through that 2.5 acres of city land.

Without a settlement, the city would have only been entitled to the appraised value of its lost property, somewhere between $17,000 and $100,000, if it lost its appeal.

Still, many residents were angered that the truce was pushed through so fast. Two weeks ago, they submitted a petition with more than 1,500 signatures, asking that voters in November be given the opportunity to vacate the deal.

Calta, the city’s law director, has offered her official opinion: The issue can’t go on the ballot.

She said she will argue to the Summit County Board of Elections that the contract with Nexus is an administrative action. The Ohio Constitution only allows electors to challenge city council legislative actions enacting laws, not settlements of litigation, she said.

Not everyone agrees with that argument. Councilman Steve Dyer — who voted against the settlement and favors the referendum — said acquisition of property is, by state law, a legislative decision, not an administrative one.

Election board director Joe Masich said he’s never had a city argue that a topic was not eligible for a referendum.

He said the board will verify the signatures, hold a hearing and forward any legal opinion provided by the city to the county prosecutor for advice.

Arguments in favor

Regardless of local opinion, the city is required to hand the petitions over to the elections board for verification at least 90 days before the November election.

Green officials said the city won’t wait that long: It will submit the signatures in early April, giving council members a couple of more weeks to answer questions and make sure residents understand the consequences.

Councilman Chris Humphrey has already been trying to convince constituents that voiding the settlement is a lose-lose proposition.

“A lot of people who signed thought a referendum would mean the pipeline won’t go through Green,” he said. “That’s not the case at all.”

The settlement only addresses the 2.5 acres of city land that has since been granted to Nexus by a lower federal court.

The only thing left to lose, Humphrey said, is the $7.5 million payout, the 20 new park acres and the extra pipeline security provisions.

Humphrey said he knows people are upset the settlement happened over a matter of days, but the city was trying to be practical.

“The feds put our case on the fast track. We were told the court could come back with an opinion any day. In the end, all we could possibly do is make Nexus delay a little,” he said.

“But Nexus was willing to pay for some certainty” so that work could begin before a March 31 state deadline that would have prohibited tree-cutting because of a rare migratory bat, he said.

Humphrey said the city’s actions were vindicated by an almost identical scenario that just concluded in Oberlin.

In that Lorain County community, the City Council rejected a $100,000 settlement while awaiting a federal court’s decision on Nexus’ claim to a 50-foot piece of city-owned land.

Last week, the court ruled in favor of Nexus. As a result, all Oberlin is entitled to is the appraised value of 50 feet of property.

Arguments against

Councilman Dyer said he believes the referendum is less of a statement on Nexus and more of a reaction to council’s speedy action.

“What we’re hearing from a lot of people is ... this is a referendum on how the agreement was rushed through in a brief period of time, with very little citizen input. Residents who spent three years fighting this thing felt they didn’t get heard,” Dyer said.

“Others say it’s not about the money, it’s about the fight. Fighting to the end,” he said.

Dyer said he’s not convinced that overturning the settlement means Green would lose the perks it gained.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean giving that money back,” he said, suggesting a court would have to decide the matter.

He said settlement opponents also share a theory that if one final eminent domain case currently in court proves successful, then Green’s case could have been overturned and “Nexus would have to find a different way to get through town.”

“Is it a long shot? Absolutely,” Dyer said. “It’s probably not likely to happen. But we have at least 1,500 people who want the city to take every opportunity to fight this thing, no matter the odds.”

The last holdout

That remaining lawsuit against Nexus in Green involves Elaine Selzer, who owns 48 acres of farmland in the middle of the pipeline’s planned route.

Selzer had plans of using her property for a residential development, according to her attorney, Dave Mucklow.

Putting a pipeline through the middle of her property would make the entire land “unusable,” he said.

But that’s not a valid argument against eminent domain. Instead, Mucklow told the court eminent domain wasn’t legal in this case because Nexus is partially owned by a Canadian company and 85 percent of the pipeline’s capacity will be used to export the natural gas to another country.

In Akron, federal Judge John Adams ruled that Nexus had a right to go onto Selzer’s property to survey it. Selzer appealed. Nexus asked for that appeal to be dismissed. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has yet to rule.

Regardless of the ruling, Mucklow said, Adams’ order did not speak to actual construction on her property, so legal action could continue beyond the next decision.

Clearing the way

While a few details have yet to be sorted out, most folks are in agreement that nothing will stop the pipeline.

The tree-cutters moved in a couple of weeks ago, felling wide swaths of forested land. Laying of the pipeline is expected to begin in July, as the project leaves Lake Township and enters the city near Mayfair Road. It will continue westward to Comet Road, likely finishing before the end of the year.

Taunya Bush, who has lived in her Comet Road home for 18 years, said she doesn’t like knowing she’s going to live in a designated “blast zone.”

She said an explosion in the pressurized pipeline across the street would probably mean broken windows and a cracked foundation in her 1827 historic home, as well as possible loss of access to the only road she could use to escape an emergency.

It didn’t help last week when Nexus contractors hit a power line near the end of her driveway, caused a “fireball” to shoot across the street, and left the neighborhood without heat and electricity for several hours, she said. After calling to insist the company put her up in a hotel and buy her dinner, she said a Nexus representative came to her house with a $300 check.

And then, those trees.

“When I drove down the street the other day, I did a double take,” she said, waving toward the cleared valley below her home. “It was all pine, now completely cleared. It broke my heart.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.