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Ohio Supreme Court Hears Eminent Domain Appeal For Country Club Near Newark Mounds

Courtesy of Ohio History Connection

An Ohio history organization wants to take back land it’s been leasing to a Newark country club for more than a hundred years. However, the county club isn’t giving it up without a fight.

Tuesday morning, the Ohio Supreme Court heard an appeal from the Moundbuilders Country Club asking it to reverse lower court rulings that allowed for the early termination of its lease with the Ohio History Connection.

The Ohio History Connection’s lease with the Moundbuilders Country Club is set to expire in 2078.

The Ohio History Connection wants the land back early so it can convert the property into a public park and improve access to Octagon Mounds.

The mounds are a part of Newark Earthworks, artwork created over 1,500 years ago by Native Americans who moved and shaped the ground into large geometric patterns. It’s the largest set of earthworks in the world and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Attorney Joshua Fraley has been representing the country club since the Ohio History Connection introduced the idea of purchasing the golf course in 2014. He says the history connection’s offer wasn’t made in good faith.

"Jurisdiction is based on a written good faith offer," Fraley said. "If it is found by this court that the OHC did not make a good faith offer, anything after that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear anything else."

Ohio History Connection offered the club $800,000 to buy back the lease, based on an appraisal. But the organization received a second appraisal of $1.75 million, which it did not disclose until a year later.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick DeWine asked Sam Peterson, the attorney for the Ohio History Connection, whether the agency could keep getting appraisals until the organization found one that most suited its financial interests.

"Could they just go out and get 50 appraisals until they found one they liked?" DeWine asked.

"They could your honor, but there are reasons why that is unlikely to occur and reasons why agencies would not want to do that," Peterson replied.

DeWine asked whether Peterson thought all appraisals would be fair and accurate. Peterson argued that seeking a high number of appraisals would go against the Ohio History Connection’s interests since the appraisals would have to be defended in court.

"You’re right, they can’t all be fair market value," Peterson said. "But that’s why we have a valuation proceeding and why those are presented to a jury."

Second Appeals Process

The case already has a long legal history.

In January 2020, the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals rejected an appeal from the country club. That affirmed a 2019 decision from the Licking County Common Pleas Court, which said the Ohio History Connection had the right to acquire the lease early because of eminent domain.

Peterson argued that the case should center on that issue, whether the Ohio History Connection has properly followed protocol for eminent domain.

"It is first about whether the Ohio History Connection properly initiated the public domain process, and second whether the appropriation issued in this case is necessary for public purpose," Peterson said.

But justices' questions Tuesday focused on the question of appraisal and whether the amount would impact the club’s willingness to terminate the lease. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wanted to know whether Moundbuilders would accept an offer of $1.75 million.

"What I’m hearing is ‘I don’t know what we would accept,'" O'Connor said. "And if that’s the case, are you negotiating in good faith here? If a good faith offer is submitted, then it gives us every right as the statute implies. That we can accept it, we can reject it, we can do all the things the statute allows us to do."

The Ohio Supreme Court voted 5-2 in July to hear the case, with Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Patrick DeWine dissenting.

The court is not expected to make a decision for about six months.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.