Whitehall officials say they will continue to negotiate with the owner of a South Hamilton Road strip center but are prepared to move forward with eminent domain if necessary.

"This is just another step in the process ... we are still talking with the property owner," Whitehall Development Director Zach Woodruff said Oct. 17, after City Council members authorized the city to seek eminent domain to appropriate the parcel at 51-91 S. Hamilton Road for the purpose of constructing a public road.

The road would serve as an entryway to the planned Norton Crossing development.

The ordinance was passed 6-0 by emergency and after its first and only reading. Councilman Larry Morrison was absent.

The city has not yet filed for eminent domain. It would do so in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

The city previously offered $920,000 to buy the Broad and Hamilton Plaza from owner Eugene Fletcher, who rejected it. Fletcher said Oct. 20 he considers the city's pending eminent domain "an abuse of power."

Fletcher said the city Oct. 18 inquired if he and his attorney would accept the city's offer to purchase the strip center, located on about two-thirds of an acre.

Fletcher would not identify the city's new offer but indicated "it was a little more" than the previous offer of $920,000.

But the amount of the offer is insignificant to Fletcher.

"Why should I be forced to sell?" asked Fletcher, who has owned the strip center since 2005 and said he is helping the city's small-business community survive.

The Shrimp Hut and Tacos Fogoncito are among the businesses occupying the center.

Woodruff said in June that the $920,000 offer was based on an appraisal by the Robert Weiler Co.

"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 in June.

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

Fletcher is represented by Columbus attorney Geoffrey Moul.

"We object to the city's notice of appropriation and do not believe the eminent-domain process is being legally evoked," Moul told ThisWeek Whitehall News in June.

"To me, this isn't about eminent domain. It's not for a building or a freeway. It's the city wanting to build an access road to help a private developer," Fletcher said.

But one eminent-domain expert says the city likely is in a good position to take control of the plot.

"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.

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.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo