This story has been updated to include comments from Moundbuilders Country Club.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A Newark golf course situated on Indigenous American earthworks is one step closer to being evicted.
In a 6-1 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last week that the Ohio History Connection can use eminent domain to oust the Moundbuilders Country Club – whose private golf course sits atop a 50-acre ancient American Indian structure – and remodel it as a public park, paving the way for a nomination to the World Heritage List.
“We are very pleased and excited the Supreme Court continues to uphold a lower court decision to make this significant site, this worldwide significant site, open to the people of Ohio,” said Megan Wood, executive director and CEO of the Ohio History Connection.
David Kratoville, president of the Moundbuilders Country Club Board of Trustees, called the court’s ruling a disappointment. Moundbuilders, which Kratoville described as a blue-collar country club, has welcomed “all walks of life” since 1910 and serves as a communal meeting space for second-, even third-generation members.
“They’ve been through the thick and the think on this,” Kratoville said. “They have been through the court proceedings and been hardened by all of what’s taken place. The net result is, again, nobody’s happy about the decision.”
Since 1910, the Moundbuilders Country Club has leased the Licking County site of the Octagon Earthworks of Newark, a 2,000-year-old geometrical embankment designed to track the moon’s orbital path around the Earth, according to court filings. When the History Connection became the land’s owner in 1933, it allowed the country club to renew its lease, most recently in 1997.
In recent years, the History Connection set its sights on nominating the Octagon Earthworks – part of the interconnected Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks – to join nearly 1,200 World Heritage sites deserving of international recognition and legal protection, court filings indicate.
“The historical, archeological and astronomical significance of the Octagon Earthworks is arguably equivalent to Stonehenge or Machu Picchu,” Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote in his majority opinion.
A site must be open to the public, however, to qualify for the prestigious World Heritage distinction as operated by the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
That’s why the U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service gave the History Connection an ultimatum: Unless the historical society terminates the country club’s lease and physically removes the golf course, the two federal agencies would provide no help in securing the World Heritage nomination.
“We’ve been really committed to having the Octagon become a site that’s publicly accessible because it’s an incredible example of ancient Indian architecture and gathering places, and it’s one of the best remaining examples of this time period,” Wood said.
Heeding the federal agencies’ advice, the History Connection offered to buy Moundbuilders’ lease for $800,000 after two separate appraisals in 2017. The parties failed to negotiate a purchasing price, so the historical society filed a motion with the Licking County Common Pleas Court to seize the lease through eminent domain, court filings show.
Shortly thereafter, an attorney noticed an error in the History Connection’s interpretation of one appraisal: The actual appraised value of the leasing rights, the attorney found, totaled $1.75 million – more than double the original offer presented to Moundbuilders Country Club.
“There’s one simple reason why no agreement was ever reached,” Kratoville said. “They’ve never been willing to offer us enough money to go somewhere else and try to recreate ourselves. We’ve been forced because of that to fight for our right to exist.”
A series of legal skirmishes followed, with Moundbuilders Country Club accusing the History Connection of acting in “bad faith” to acquire the property and failing to prove that taking land was “necessary and for a public use,” court records indicate.
The country club argued that History Connection would not serve the public’s interest in acquiring the leasing rights, asserting the government will not adequately preserve the site and only wants it to gain World Heritage recognition, which is not a certainty.
“The country club further argues that merely alleging a need for a public park should not justify a taking, because doing so would encourage abusive practices such as the taking of property in the middle of a busy shopping district on a flimsy claim of a need to increase green space,” Donnelly wrote in his opinion.
Both a trial court and the Fifth District Court of Appeals – and most recently, the Ohio Supreme Court – rejected the country club’s arguments. Donnelly argued that History Connection’s purpose in acquiring the leasing rights “is not to take the land and put it under a bell jar.”
“Instead, this park will help preserve and ensure perpetual public access to one of the most significant landmarks in the state of Ohio,” Donnelly wrote. “This is not just any green space. It is a prehistoric monument that has no parallel in the world in its ‘combination of scale, geometric accuracy, and precision.’”
In her lone dissent, Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy said there is no guarantee that UNESCO will stamp the Octagon Earthworks as a World Heritage site. Only two of five sites nominated by the U.S. since 2008 have been accepted to the list, she said.
“Further, no contract, agreement, or memorandum of understanding was submitted as evidence that the appropriation by the History Connection will result in the earthworks’ designation as a World Heritage site,” Kennedy wrote.
A jury trial will be scheduled in Licking County to determine the appropriate price of the leasing rights to Moundbuilders’ golf course. This summer, UNESCO will vote on the nomination of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks – which includes the Octagon Earthworks of Newark – to the World Heritage List, Wood said.
In the meantime, Kratoville said Moundbuilders Country Club is exploring new locations for its golf course. It’s a tough feat, he said, when the jury has yet to assign a price tag to the course and external factors like inflation and Intel rear their heads.
“Three years ago, you wouldn’t have had Intel building in Licking County, and you wouldn’t have the current inflationary conditions that exist in our economy coupled with speculative land buying driving prices up around Licking County as a result of Intel,” Kratoville said. “Our options have become more expensive and more limited.”