Arguments at the Ohio Supreme Court-about the validity of an eminent domain case involving a golf course that houses age old earthworks-have begun. The case revolves around the Moundbuilders Country Club (the “club”), an 18-hole golf course located on sacred Native American grounds. The current owner of the property is the Ohio History Connection (“OHC”), a statewide nonprofit organization that contracts with the state to oversee more than 50 historic sites. OHC wants to acquire the property via eminent domain, by terminating its lease with the club and paying for its fair market value. OHC has leased the property to the club since acquiring it in 1933.
The club opened in 1911 and was designed by a noted golf architect, Thomas Bendelow, who designed America’s first 18-hole public golf course, Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. The golf course’s topography is built around mounds (the “Octagon Mounds”) that were created by the Hopewell tribe approximately 2,000 years ago, as a way to measure the movement of the sun and the moon through the heavens. The Octagon Mounds will likely be named a UNESCO Heritage Site. The Hopewell culture at one point had built hundreds of major earthworks. The mound building groups of Native Americas lived from about 100 B.C.E. to 500 C.E, and the Octagon Mounds at this golf course are widely embraced as an astronomical and geometric marvel. Sadly, until recently the value of the mounds wasn’t recognized, and many have been destroyed.
Now to the issue of eminent domain. The club has leased the land for more than a century, and is now being asked to relocate so that the mounds can be properly embraced as an archaeological treasure. Moving the golf club, however, will require a tremendous amount of money, something that the 300 mostly blue-collar members says that they don’t have.
OHC, the nonprofit that has owned the site since 1933, is utilizing its powers of eminent domain in a lawsuit to buy back the club’s lease, which would hold another 57 years. The club disputes OHC’s right to break the contract. In January 2020, a state appeals court ruled in favor of OHC; and now the case is headed to the Ohio Supreme Court. OHC offered the club $800,000 to buy back the lease, based on its appraisal. But the OHC received a second appraisal of $1.75 million, which it did not disclose until a year later. Reports say that the club wants $12 million to relinquish its lease, which expires in 2078.
Joe Fraley, the attorney for Moundbuilders Country Club in the eminent domain proceedings, said the two issues are whether the OHC purchase offer was made in good faith, and if the trial court used the appropriate standard to determine the taking by eminent domain. He raised the issue of the two appraisals in his arguments. The Club has also argued that OHC’s public purpose (another pre-requisite for eminent domain) could be accomplished without eminent domain, by an expanded program of research, education services and preservation — and without ending the lease of a major employer in the area.
Unlike New York eminent domain proceedings (which are almost impossible to stop or challenge successfully), the validity of Ohio eminent domain proceedings appear to heavily rely on whether the Condemnor (here OHC) made a good faith offer. If they did, then the end result is a valuation trial in front of a jury (as opposed to New York, where eminent domain trials are only heard by a judge, without a jury).
This is certainly and interesting case and one that we are sure to follow. Stay tuned!