SOUTH LEBANON, Ohio – For nearly two years, a disabled woman says leaders in the Warren County village she lives have targeted her with a series of complaints because they want to take her house and tear it down.
Her court cases, which dragged out in South Lebanon mayor’s court for almost 20 months, wrapped up on Thursday, but Darlene Rogers said she fears it could start again.
“I haven’t had a decent night sleep since this all began. I’ve had the police at my door, beating my door down, handing me court summons,” said Rogers, 58, whose case has been in court 13 times since October 2012, according to court records obtained by WCPO.
The mayor called Rogers’ property at 143 S. Main Street an “eyesore,” and said the village is simply enforcing its laws to ensure South Lebanon looks as good as it can. Rogers, who lives on a fixed income of just over $700 a month, says the upkeep on her house is difficult for her, but maintains her home is not any worse than others in the village of 4,100.
At issue is whether village officials are just doing their job by enforcing their village laws for the health and safety of their residents or if they’re using the ordinances to further another motive.
Rogers' case is a classic example of a debate that’s been going on across the country for years—the intersection of individual property rights and government, say experts uninvolved with Roger’s case.
“If there is really a genuine public health or safety issue, then the government is empowered to do something about it," said Dan Alban, an attorney for property rights and economic liberty issues at the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice. “But the problem is very often they pay lip service to public health and safety in order to exercise power arbitrarily. That is something we see across the country.”
'If I Did Not Sell, He Would Keep Citing Me To Court'
Ordinance violations at Roger’s house precede the start of her most recent court battle that began in 2012. She received a clean-up notice in 2011 for miscellaneous household items and car parts on her property.
She pleaded not guilty in court, and the case was dismissed after she addressed the issue and paid $70 in court fees.
But it wasn’t until 2012 that Rogers said she started to feel singled out with citations.
The village mayor, Skip Lawhorn, identified her home as an “eyesore” at a public council meeting when he took office that year. The discussion was a small part of his larger platform to destroy blighted properties in the village.
“I just wanted the village to look better. You know, we have vast differences in residences here. We go from millions of dollar homes to 10, 15, $25,000 homes. We want those 10,15, $25,000 homes to look as good as they can,” Lawhorn said.
A building committee, formed by Lawhorn, selected five homes in the village that needed the most work. Rogers’ home was at the top of the list.
"It really and truly was [an eyesore] in the village and nothing was being done with it," said Lawhorn. "It was just in bad shape."
The committee selected the homes to take advantage of grant money awarded from the state of Ohio to eliminate blighted property, said Gary Vidmar, South Lebanon village administrator. Vidmar, who was hired on full-time in April 2013, currently holds the task of inspecting property throughout the village.
On behalf of the village, Lawhorn offered to purchase Roger’s home in 2012 and recommended a senior living center where she could live.
"Have you been to her house? You should go look at that. I just think it's [the senior center] a better place for her to live," said Lawhorn.
But Rogers, who said she had lived in her home for more than 20 years without problems, didn’t want to sell.
WCPO Insiders can read why Rogers thinks she's a victim and why village officials say they haven't done anything wrong.
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