WHEN YOU CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE GOODS
I’m always looking for ideas, and I am rather shameless about appropriating them. So when an Ohio lawyer friend, himself from a timber-harvesting family, mentioned an case that delineated when trees were attached to the real estate and when they were “goods,” I chased down the decision. Or, in this case, the decisions – one from the court of appeals, and a second from the Ohio Supreme Court.
Speaking of “appropriating,” that was exactly the context in which the case was decided. It seems that Dudley DeBolt had a pretty nice place in Hocking County, beautiful Appalachian foothill country. In fact, Dudley’s place was so nice the government wanted it for a park. Governments being what they are, the appropriate agency – an entity called the Board of Park Commissioners of the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Park District – sued Dudley to take 40 acres of his wooded land for its purposes.
Under the laws governing eminent domain, not to mention the 5th Amendment, when the government takes private property for public purposes, it must pay just compensation. But it seems that the Park Board didn’t want to pay Dudley for the timber contract he had already signed with a local timber merchant, one for the select cutting of about 150,000 board feet of hardwood. The land itself was worth $58,000, Dudley claimed, but there was also the timber contract that he now would be unable to fulfill, for an additional $14,000.
Nope, the Park Board argued, the trees are attached to the land and had no value separate from the land. That had been Ohio law prior to the adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code. The trial court agreed with the Park Board.
The Court of Appeals did not. Rather, it held that the UCC had changed everything, and as a result, Dudley was given a chance to prove to the jury the existence and value of the timber contract. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed, and the case went back to the trial court.
Board of Park Comm’rs v DeBolt, 1984 WL 4248 (Ct.App. Hocking County, Ohio, 1984). The Board of Park Commissioners of the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Park District sued landowner Dudley DeBolt, Jr., appropriate 40 acres of his land. Mr. DeBolt believed the fair market value for the land to be $73,970, including $32,000 for the land at $800 an acre, $26,000 for the home and $14,000 for his profit from the removal of certain timber on the property. The trial court agreed with the Park Board that Mr. DeBolt was not allowed to calculate the value of his standing timber separately from the land, and it refused to allow Mr. DeBolt to put in any further evidence of the value of his timber. The jury returned a verdict of $58,000 as compensation for the land and improvements taken. Mr. DeBolt appealed.
Held: Mr. DeBolt was allowed to value the timber separately. Although the Board argued that Ohio law prohibited setting market value for trees upon land to be appropriated separate and apart from the value of the land, the Court pointed out that the decision which included that holding was made well prior to the adoption by Ohio of the Uniform Commercial Code. The UCC provides that a “contract for the sale apart from the land of growing crops or other things attached to realty and capable of severance without material harm thereto … or of timber to be cut is a contract for the sale of goods within sections 1302.01 to 1302.98 of the Revised Code, whether the subject matter is to be severed by the buyer or by the seller even though it forms part of the realty at the time of contracting, and the parties can by identification effect a present sale before severance.” Thus, the Court ruled, the UCC had abrogated prior Ohio law by making a contract for the sale of timber into a contract for the sale of goods.
Here the evidence showed that in the summer of 1981, a timber merchant and DeBolt had a contract for cutting timber and had agreed on a price. Therefore, the Court said, DeBolt ought to have had the right to prove the existence and value of the timber contract. It was a contract for the sale of goods, and Debolt thus had a vested contractual right which was frustrated by the Park Board’s appropriation. The Court said that “the enactment of the UCC has in our opinion changed the character of standing timber from realty to personalty when there is a contract under R.C. 1302.03.” Once the contract was made, the trees were “goods” under the UCC and no longer a part of the land.
People who have to pay attention to the bottom line make careful decisions whether appealing an adverse decision is worth the time and legal costs. Not so governments, which hire lawyers by the gross and pay them with taxpayer dollars. Unhappy at having to part with an additional $14,000, the Board of Park Commissioners appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Even in 1984, a for-profit entity would have easily seen that legal fees and wasted time would easily exceed that.
Board of Park Comm’rs v DeBolt, 15 Ohio St.3d 376 (Supreme Court of Ohio 1984). The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the record supported a finding that a contract may have existed for the sale of the timber. The Supreme Court found some evidence that Dudley DeBolt was to receive $14,000 for the sale of some 150,000 board feet of lumber, and that such lumber was to be obtained in a select cutting, which was permitted under the terms of his mother’s will. The timber cutter said 150,000 board feet of lumber could be obtained in a select cutting, and stated that he had first surveyed the property some eighteen months prior to the trial.
The Supreme Court ruled that a contract for the sale of timber is a contract for the sale of goods, not realty. ORC § 1302.03(B). Such a contract is protected against a governmental taking without just compensation, as it was part of the property taken by the Board of Park Commissioners. Because such a contract is an asset separate and apart from the land, it is subject to separate valuation. The case was sent back to the trial court to give Dudley a chance to prove his case.
– Tom Root