AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio's natural resources agency said Tuesday it met the second of two court-ordered deadlines to speed up compensation to landowners for losses from flooding near Ohio's largest inland lake.

At issue is how fast the Department of Natural Resources has responded to an order by the Ohio Supreme Court to compensate 87 landowners near Grand Lake St. Marys, a 20-square-mile lake between Dayton and Toledo.

The agency met an April deadline for filing lawsuits to take the owners' property, a necessary step that triggers the action needed for the state to compensate the landowners, according to a Natural Resources court filing.

The state said in February it met a deadline to complete remaining appraisals on properties.
The state has argued that some property owners' land lies outside a flood elevation line and isn't eligible for compensation. But of those that are within the line, the state has made fair settlement offers, the natural resources agency said Tuesday.

Natural Resources director James Zehringer defended the agency's "careful and thoughtful approach," which he said protected Ohio taxpayers.

Paying "for land that doesn't flood, and paying too much for flooding not caused by the spillway modifications, is simply wasting taxpayers' money," Zehringer said in a statement.

The state also blamed attorneys representing property owners for their own delays, saying multiple requests to delay court hearings set back the next case to be settled by four months.

The two sides have battled for years over the speed of the compensation.

An attorney for the landowners on Tuesday criticized the state for not putting down deposits to cover remaining cases involving people who sued over the state's alleged delays.

"Ohio law is apparently no obstacle to ODNR in its effort to punish landowners who successfully obtained an order of contempt against it from the Ohio Supreme Court," Columbus attorney Bruce Ingram said in a statement.

The state says it will secure the money once the court cases have been settled.

Landowners say a horseshoe-shaped dam the state built in 1997 has led to significant floods almost every year since.

The Ohio Supreme Court said four months ago the landowners had shown "clear and convincing evidence" that the state was in contempt of the court's December 2011 decision ordering compensation. The court's Dec. 5 order gave the state three months to complete the remaining appraisals on properties and four to file lawsuits to take property, deadlines the state says have been met.

Lawyers for the landowners - almost all of them farmers - had alleged the state dragged its feet since the court's 2011 compensation order, with only eight settlements filed and six of those in the week before the December 2012 contempt of court hearing.

Last year, the state withdrew a settlement offer of $24 million, or about $5,000 per acre, when presented with a counteroffer of about $27 million, with the extra $3 million including business owners and homeowners without farms.