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Trial to decide how much historical society pays country club to reclaim earthworks site on hold

earthen mounds
Ohio History Connection
Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio.

A jury trial that was slated to begin this week to determine how much Ohio History Connection must pay Moundbuilders Country Club to reclaim land currently being used as a golf course is on hold pending appeal. The course sits on the Octagon Earthworks, a sacred, ancient Indigenous earthwork site and part of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which were just added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

On Monday afternoon a judge determined the trial scheduled to begin Tuesday cannot proceed. The defendants are appealing an earlier decision to the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

How much is the golf course worth?

"Our appraisal experts have come in around the $2 million mark," says Megan Wood, CEO of Ohio History Connection (OHC). "The jury will have to look at both sides' evidence and make that decision. We assume that it's somewhere in that area, maybe higher, but that'll be up to the judge or the jury to determine."

RELATED: Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites

An appraisal done on behalf of the country club put the value at around $22 million. However, in a ruling prior to the upcoming trial, Judge David Branstool determined that number is way too high because it takes into account the value of the earthworks as well as the golf course and "the Country Club is not entitled to be compensated for any value attributed by the earthworks as they are owned by the OHC for the benefit of the public."

In his Oct. 6 decision, the judge notes that the average sale price of golf courses in Ohio over the past two years is $2.5 million. He disallowed any witnesses tied to the valuations that included the worth of the earthworks.

The country club last week filed a notice to appeal the judge's decision. The case will now go before a three-judge panel with the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

"The court recently eliminated all of our witnesses," attorney Joseph Fraley wrote in an email to WVXU. "A trial that only allows the state to present evidence is not a trial at all."

Ohio History Connection issued this response to the appeal.

“We continue to have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the legal process and our court system as we work to resolve the leasehold for our Octagon Earthworks property,” said Wood. “We remain committed to our part in these proceedings and are eager for a resolution.”

On Dec. 7, 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld two lower court rulings siding with the Ohio History Connection. The agency sought to reclaim the land where the Octagon Earthworks sit through eminent domain.

RELATED: State Supreme Court sides with Ohio History Connection in bid for Newark earthworks site

Licking County residents voted in 1891 to tax themselves in order to purchase the land. It was subsequently given to the state of Ohio, then to the city of Newark, which, in 1910 leased it to the Licking County Club, which would become Moundbuilders Country Club. Ohio History Connection took ownership of the 134-acre site in 1933. The original lease was extended several times, with the final one extending until 2078. However, the historical society moved to reclaim the land through eminent domain in 2018.

The agency argued the move was necessary as part of the bid to have the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks inscribed on the World Heritage List, which requires historic sites to be preserved and maintained.

The country club immediately asked the state supreme court to reconsider, but that request was promptly denied.

Delegates from across the world meeting in Saudi Arabia last month approved adding Ohio's Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks to the World Heritage List. UNESCO awards the designation to places deemed of universal
importance and value to humankind.

This story may be updated as developments unfold.

Updated: October 16, 2023 at 4:06 PM EDT
Updated to reflect appeal to Fifth District Court of Appeals
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.