COLUMBUS — A Franklin County Common Pleas judge has ruled that Akron, Barberton and Columbus can manage city-owned property along their water reservoirs.

In 2015, the Ohio legislature slipped a last-minute provision into the 2016-17 state budget to allow landowners whose properties border the city property near the reservoirs to mow grass and cut down trees and other vegetation on city property.

The cities jointly filed a lawsuit that halted the law from going into effect.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael J. Holbrook issued a 20-page summary judgment this week stating the law was unconstitutional under the home rule amendment, meaning cities have the right to maintain their public property when it’s not a statewide concern. The law also goes against the utility clause in the Ohio Constitution, the judge ruled, because it was “restricting and interfering with the cities’ ability to operate the drinking water utilities.”

Akron operates four reservoirs: Lake Rockwell that holds 2.3 billion gallons; LaDue that holds 6 billion gallons; East Branch that holds 1.5 billion gallons; and Mogadore that is used for recreation and not drinking water.

"This is a very important decision," Akron Director of Public Service John Moore said in a prepared statement. "If Akron and the other communities had not prevailed, neighboring property owners would have been permitted to access property that is currently off limits to the public and would have had the right to remove vegetation which is specifically in place to provide a natural vegetative buffer that provides important natural filtration for run off. The quality and security of Akron’s drinking water could potentially have been compromised had we not prevailed."

Barberton Mayor Bill Judge called the ruling "a big win." The Barberton Reservoir, located on Wolf Creek in Norton and Copley Township, holds up to 670 million gallons.

“In reality, this was always aimed at Columbus. We know that,” Westley Phillips, an assistant city attorney for the city of Columbus who worked on the case, said about the state legislation.

The thin strip of city-owned land that ranges from 5 to 250 feet serves as a buffer to keep contaminants from going into its three reservoirs. In the past, Columbus has had issues with nitrates entering the water supply and has had to spend more money to treat the water to fight harmful algae blooms.

Some landowners adjacent to Columbus reservoirs wanted to access the city’s land to install docks or to create a waterfront view. The law would prevent cities from taking any action against the private landowners if they make changes to the city's property, the judge ruled.

“The only interests being promoted are those of the relatively few individuals owning land adjacent to the buffer area of the Cities’ drinking water reservoirs,” Holbrook wrote. “Neither the public health, safety, morals, nor welfare are advanced by these individuals’ ability to create access paths or view corridors, or to otherwise beautify the buffers.”

In Columbus, the issue affects about 900 private property owners along the three reservoirs — Griggs, Hoover and O’Shaughnessy — that provide drinking water for 1.2 million people.

The drinking water is "what it’s always been about,” Phillips said. “This is a big deal and they need someone to stand up and fight for them and that's what we tried to do in this case.”

It's unclear if the Ohio attorney general, the defendant in the lawsuit, plans to appeal. A spokesman for Attorney General Dave Yost's office said attorneys will be reviewing the decision.

Columbus is in the process of overhauling its land stewardship program, which allows property owners to work with the city to maintain a small section of city property that provides homeowners access to the water.

Contact Beth Burger at bburger@dispatch.com or @ByBethBurger. Beacon Journal/Ohio.com staff writer Rick Armon contributed to this report.