Fighting for (and Sometimes Against) City Hall

Jeff Forbes usually represents cities but ended up on the other side in the influential Norwood v. Horney case

Published in 2010 Ohio Rising Stars — January 2010

As a partner in the government and land use practice group at Wood & Lamping in Cincinnati, Jeff Forbes spends most of his time representing local governments and serving as both assistant law director and law director for different municipalities. But in Norwood v. Horney, he fought for the homeowners.

“What I found interesting about the whole case was just the balance of protecting property owners’ rights with giving a city or a community the tools they need to be successful,” he says. “As someone who generally represents the government side of things, it was an interesting balance to strike.” The conflict centered on a Norwood residential neighborhood where a developer wanted to build a mix of condos, retail and office space that would boost the struggling city’s tax base. But a few homeowners refused to sell, so the city conducted a study, declared the area “deteriorating,” and seized the hold-out houses through eminent domain. 

Then the legal battles began. The Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., helped the homeowners challenge the city’s right to take the property and brought on Wood & Lamping—which was already in contact with some of the homeowners—as local counsel. It was a highly charged issue: In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the government’s ability to seize property for commercial interests in the landmark Kelo case, and some states immediately began changing their laws as a backlash against the ruling. The next year, the Norwood battle became the first eminent domain case to reach a state Supreme Court after the Kelo decision, and many people looked at it as a test.

Forbes describes himself as a behind-the-scenes man on the Norwood case, reading the briefs and researching Ohio eminent domain law. As the Norwood case progressed, the state was in the process of changing those laws, and the statutes were modified after the Norwood homeowners won—tightening up the conditions under which governments can use eminent domain. “A lot of what the new law changes is just similar to what the court had already decided in the Norwood case,” he says. “You could say they didn’t even need to change the state law because the Norwood case sort of clarified that. But they did.”

On the surface, all this seems like a stark contrast to Forbes’ typical work. He has been part of the government and land use practice group since joining the firm after law school in 2001. Today, he’s the law director for Waynesville and the assistant law director for Mason and Springdale. On a typical day, he might field a call from a city manager working to close a contract or spend his evening at a city council meeting. He also assists lawyers in the firm who are the law directors for other area governments.

“We’re really not much different than what a general counsel would be for a corporation,” Forbes says. “They have their city council that’s kind of like the board of directors. A lot of times they’ll have a city manager who’s kind of like the CEO.” He’s handled everything from drafting laws and assisting with labor issues to helping Mason figure out how to turn its community center into a health care opportunity. On the latter project, he played a key role in structuring an agreement with TriHealth to build an expansion, now under construction, that will include a café, doctors’ offices, rehabilitation services and health care classes.

And though it might not seem obvious at first, there is a thread that ties all of Forbes’ government work to the Norwood case, and it happens to be what he enjoys most about his job: giving back to a community. He grew up in a small town on the Ohio River learning from his grandfather, who served on everything from the local planning commission to the committee that organized the annual summer festival. “I look back at what he used to do, and it’s not too different from what I’m doing now both in my career and in my private life,” Forbes says. “I think having grown up with that understanding of how important it is to do community work, and then being able to do it … it’s just pretty neat.”

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