The Port of Cleveland and the Metroparks have racked up $1.6 million in bills in their legal fight with business owner Tony George over a piece of land at Irishtown Bend in Ohio City, records show.
Attorneys for the port argue that the unstable Irishtown Bend hillside presents an urgent threat to safety and commerce on the river. The port needs to take the land, owned by George’s company Mortgage Investment Group, to properly regrade the hill, they say.
George and his attorneys say the port is trampling his property rights. A crucial piece of the back-and-forth is what happens to the 30-by-70-foot billboard on George’s land.
Legal costs have mounted as litigation has dragged on through multiple suits and appeals. The taxpayer-funded port and park system released their bills to Signal Cleveland in response to public records requests.
The invoices show that the Port of Cleveland has incurred $1.5 million in costs to five law firms and one graphic design company since 2021. The Metroparks’ bills totalled just more than $100,000.
The Port of Cleveland derives funding from a variety of sources, including a property tax levy and fees on docking, storage and development finance. The bulk of the Metroparks’ revenue comes from property taxes.
The firms handling the litigation include Akerman LLP, Mansour Gavin and Climaco Wilcox Peca & Garofoli. The firm Thompson Hine represents the Metroparks.
The property – at the corner of West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue – is home to a vacant Royal Castle restaurant and the large billboard. A coalition of public entities and nonprofits wants to stabilize the eroding hillside and add the land to the new park being developed above the Cuyahoga River.
George and his son Bobby bought the property in 2018 through their company Mortgage Investment Group. They went to court in 2021 to block the port from taking the land through eminent domain. After the port made an offer for the property as part of the eminent domain process, George sued a second time.
Scott D. Simpkins, an attorney at Climaco, wrote in a letter to Signal Cleveland that Mortgage Investment Group had rejected offers for the property and that the port “has tried to keep legal expenses to a minimum.”
“The Irishtown Bend Hillside Stabilization Project is a $54 million project, for which the Port Authority has secured grant and other funding from numerous local, state and federal agencies,” Simpkins wrote. “Legal expenses on the project have exceeded expectations because of the necessary defense of lawsuits filed by MIG against the Port Authority and its project partners.”
The George family released a statement to Signal Cleveland through an attorney.
“The George family purchased this property in 2018 simply because they wanted to continue to contribute to the exciting and transformational development happening along W. 25th Street,” the statement read. “The Georges are not, and never have been, opposed to the Park or the Project. The George family remains hopeful that there can be a resolution that is fair to all parties and furthers the parties’ shared vision for an even more vibrant, exciting, and accessible neighborhood.”
The arguments in the case – and key financial details – came into view during a three-day hearing in April 2022.
The Georges bought the building and billboard for $1.1 million, according to a purchase agreement included in county Board of Revision documents. They also took out a mortgage for the same amount, county records show. They paid $248,200 for the property and $851,800 for the billboard, according to the purchase agreement.
County records show the property is now valued at $350,000.
An attorney for the Port of Cleveland offered the company $360,000 for the building and land, according to a January 2022 letter included in court exhibits. That offer did not include the cost of the billboard, “as it is the intention to either reinstall the billboard on-site or relocate the board if reinstallation is not feasible,” the port’s letter read.
In court, Tony George said that he planned to develop the land and was prepared to pay for a retaining wall to protect the property from erosion. His attorneys said that any offer for the property should include compensation for the billboard. George said that Mortgage Investment Group had a $15,000-per-month advertising agreement with Laborers Local 860.
The parties held mediation sessions last fall in an effort to reach a settlement, according to appellate court records.