One Ohio family’s fight could shape future farmland preservation efforts
Three generations of the Bailey family are working to clean out 9,000 bushels of corn kernels stored in their grain bin. But first, they’ve got to repair a piece of farm equipment: a bin sweep auger.
Don Bailey tests the equipment. He smiles when he hears it give a roar.
“We’re back in business. Won’t take long now,” he said.
Don tells his grandson Elton to flip a switch. Knee deep in kernels, his son Patrick watches as the auger kicks back to life. Despite mechanical failures and long days, Don loves to farm.
“If everything worked perfect, it wouldn’t be any fun. Anybody could do it,” he said.
Twenty years ago, Don’s uncle, Arlo Renner, entrusted this land to Don and Patrick to keep in production. Renner donated it to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, or the ODA’s, agricultural easement program. It's a contract with the state that requires the around 230 acres to be used solely for agricultural production – protecting it as farmland forever.
But, the Bailey family had to fight the state for the right to farm their land. Their recent court case could have big implications for farmland preservation across the state.
A precedent setting case
Don said his uncle Renner saw Union County’s farmland slowly disappear over the course of his life. Renner wanted to protect the farm, 30 miles northwest of Columbus, from urban development.
“I'm trying to live up to what he wants to do, and do what's best for the future of the farm,” Don said.
That has proved difficult. Since the Bailey’s acquired the property, multiple companies have applied to put pipelines through parts of the land. The first two times, the ODA stepped in to put a stop to those requests. But, in 2019, the Baileys received a letter from Columbia Gas. It wanted to put a natural gas pipeline on the land, cutting through 13 miles of the farm.
Patrick and his wife Whitney passed along the request to the ODA, expecting the same result as the first two pipeline requests. The ODA instead sided with Columbia Gas.
“We made the mistake of trusting our government,” Patrick said. “We thought they'd do what was statutorily required and morally required, and they didn't do it.”
The department contended that building a pipeline through the land wouldn’t be a violation of the easement. They supported Columbia Gas in its argument that the pipeline wouldn’t impact the ability to farm.
The family disagreed.
“We couldn't put up a livestock barn or a greenhouse, we couldn’t have fences, we couldn't have an orchard,” he said. “Lots of things that qualify as agriculture in the state of Ohio we would not be able to do on land that has a pipeline easement on it.”
The Baileys decided to fight the decision in court. It was costly. They had to dip into the college funds of their five kids to afford it. But Patrick and Whitney felt like they had a huge obligation on their shoulders.
“Every single easement that the ODA held would be in jeopardy. Because, if Columbia Gas had come through here, that would set a precedent that easements could have pipelines across them, even though they say that they can't.”
In April, their efforts paid off: the Ohio Third District Court of Appeals ruled Columbia Gas couldn’t use Bailey's land. The next month, Columbia Gas officially abandoned their case.
A spokesperson for ODA said the department respects the court’s decision and that it will continue efforts to ensure food and agriculture remains a top industry in the state.
The decision is the just result, according to Leah Curtis, a legal expert with the Ohio Farm Bureau. She said the ruling sets an important precedent for the more than 500 agricultural easements in the state.
“We've had a court recognize that these farmland easements are a public use that they do have that importance to the public,” Curtis said. “So that in the future, if there are other issues of eminent domain threatening a farmland easement, that's going to be a part of any future cases as well.
Patrick is hopeful that’s the case – but a bit skeptical, too.
“I had no idea how heavily the odds are stacked against landowners in the state of Ohio when it comes to dealing with utility companies or eminent domain. You don't have a chance, hardly,” he said.
Still, he’s proud of his family, for doing what they always do when something is broken – working together to fix it.