The line of customers at Tacos Fogoncito, 51 S. Hamilton Road, stretched to the front door at lunchtime June 22, and carryout orders lined the countertop.

Thursday is BOGO day at the Mexican restaurant, and customers know it.

"I come here every Thursday," said Colin Clute, 27, who works near the Whitehall restaurant.

The transplanted Los Angeles native said authentic Mexican dishes are hard to come by in central Ohio, but Tacos Fogoncito is the exception -- and he can't get enough.

At a nearby table, four co-workers from Defense Supply Center Columbus also were taking advantage of the buy-one, get-one-free special.

"We're here at least every Thursday," said Jeremy Donnell, 34.

But the customers perhaps didn't know the popular eatery, along with five other tenants of the retail strip center at 51-91 S. Hamilton Road, is subject to possible eminent-domain action by the city of Whitehall, ahead of the construction of the nearby Norton Crossing development.

"This restaurant is our very livelihood," said Angelica Gamino, who with her husband, Fernando, owns and operates Tacos Fogoncito.

The couple began with a food truck on Morse Road in north Columbus that continues to operate, but three years ago, they took a leap of faith, opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Whitehall.

"Of course, we're not happy, but there isn't a lot we can do," Gamino said. "The big companies, they cut a deal and we won't have anywhere to go."

The city has not yet filed for eminent domain but made an offer of $920,000 to purchase the retail center, known as the Broad and Hamilton Plaza, from owner Eugene Fletcher, who rejected it.

Fletcher said the offer represents only a 3 percent increase from the amount he paid 12 years ago to purchase the 1.16-acre parcel.

Fletcher called the offer "insulting" and "ridiculous" and questioned whether the city's intent for the parcel meets the requirement for eminent domain.

He said he and his attorney struck an agreement with the city in mid-June to postpone any formal actions for 45 days while negotiations continued.

"(The city) still wants to take my land -- steal it, if you ask me," said Fletcher, adding the city's pending action is preventing him from leasing unoccupied space in the strip center.

The $920,000 offer was based on an appraisal by the Robert Weiler Co., said Whitehall Development Director Zach Woodruff.

"We delivered a good-faith offer based on that appraisal (and) we will continue to have dialogue (with the owner) to reach a resolution," Woodruff said.

The city has retained the law firm Frost Brown Todd to represent the city in the negotiations, Woodruff said.

Fletcher is represented by Columbus attorney Geoffrey Moul.

Moul would not comment on any agreement with the city but confirmed he is in continuing discussions with city officials concerning the parcel.

"We object to the city's notice of appropriation and do not believe the eminent-domain process is being legally invoked."

The four co-workers from DSCC, on learning of the possible eminent domain, debated its merits June 22, offering differing views.

But according to one eminent-domain expert, the city likely is in a good position to use eminent domain.

"If the land is being taken for a public use, the bar is rather low to get over," said Matt Strayer, a partner at Goldman and Braunstein LLP and an expert practitioner in eminent-domain law.

Indeed, Woodruff said, the city would retain ownership of the land and use it to build a public road from the west side of South Hamilton Road to the mixed-use development to be known as Norton Crossing.

The majority of Norton Crossing will be built on the former site of the Commons at Royal Landing, a 42-building, 270-unit apartment complex on 17 acres that Whitehall bought in April 2016 for $5 million from a New Jersey real-estate agent.

Also included in the project is the 1-acre parcel at 115 Shumaker Lane where an apartment building once stood, bought by the city for $25,000 and demolished in August 2015; and another 1-acre parcel owned by the Whitehall Community Improvement Corp.

The three parcels together total almost 20 acres, but Whitehall and Continental Real Estate also want to acquire the retail strip center and the three-building apartment complex immediately north of it to add to Norton Crossing's footprint.

Unlike the Commons at Royal Landing site, which the city plans to sell to Continental Real Estate, Whitehall would retain ownership of the strip center if it were acquired through eminent domain.

That, Strayer said, is key.

"The general rule is eminent domain can't be given to a private developer ... or used for economic development," he said -- but limited exceptions exist if it can be proven that the move would reduce blight.

"But if it's for a road for public use, the standard isn't that high for a government to use eminent domain," Strayer said.

Still, Fletcher said he thinks city leaders are overreaching in an effort to remove something it would rather not see in the area -- especially in light of public comments about the city's efforts to improve the East Broad Street corridor.

"We are striving to build a quality community and do not want to have substandard adjacencies at the entrance to Whitehall," Frank Kass, founder and chairman of Continental Real Estate, previously told ThisWeek Whitehall News concerning the acquisition of additional parcels.

Continental Real Estate is negotiating with the three-building apartment unit, also known as the Broad and Hamilton Plaza, to the north of the center.

In April, Whitehall City Council authorized legislation to deed the 17 acres at the Commons at Royal Landing and the Shumaker Lane parcel to Continental Real Estate for $1.

However, the transaction will not be executed until the parcels are rezoned and an agreement reached for the project in which Continental Real Estate is expected to invest $50 million, Woodruff said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo