Golf Course on Ancient Earthworks Must Surrender Lease, Justices Say

For more than a century, golfers at a course in central Ohio have navigated ancient Native American earthworks built to measure the movement of the sun and the moon through the heavens. Now it’s the country club’s days there that are numbered.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the state’s historical society, which owns the land, can use eminent domain to expel the club and create a public park in an attempt to gain recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 1910, the Moundbuilders Country Club began building an 18-hole golf course atop the Octagon Earthworks, which are considered an astronomical and geometric marvel. The Ohio History Connection acquired the land in 1933 and has since leased it to the club, which has said it was willing to move before the lease ends in 2078 — for the right price.

But the parties remained millions of dollars apart in their negotiations, and the value of the lease will now be determined in a jury trial in a lower court.

“The historical, archaeological and astronomical significance of the Octagon Earthworks is arguably equivalent to Stonehenge or Machu Picchu,” Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote in the 6-1 decision, which upheld two rulings by lower courts.

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The mounds in Newark, about 40 miles east of Columbus, are part of a network of eight archaeological sites in Ohio, known as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, that were built by Native Americans about 2,000 years ago. They were created one basketful of earth at a time, using pointed sticks and clamshell hoes.

The state’s representatives have proposed eminent domain compensation of $1.7 million. The country club wants $12 million.Credit…Seth Moherman for The New York Times

The Ohio History Connection sued the country club in 2018 in an attempt to acquire the lease, and in March announced it had submitted the earthworks site and two others for World Heritage recognition. Federal officials had told the historical society that securing such recognition, which brings international acclaim and legal protection, would be impossible without full public access to the site.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee will consider the nomination next summer.

“The court’s decision recognizes the incredible accomplishments of American Indian ancestors in Ohio, how relevant these amazing earthworks remain today and how essential their preservation is for the future,” Megan Wood, the executive director and chief executive of the Ohio History Connection, said in a statement.

David Kratoville, the president of the Moundbuilders Country Club’s board of trustees, wrote in an email that the group was disappointed but might file a request with the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.

He said the historical society had “never offered Moundbuilders adequate compensation to relocate their business to another property in Licking County,” citing the costs of relocating and building a replacement golf course.

The state’s representatives have proposed eminent domain compensation of $1.7 million, up from an initial offer of $800,000. The club wants $12 million.

The club had argued that the History Connection did not make a good-faith offer to acquire the lease after the property was initially appraised, as is required for an eminent domain seizure, and that ending the lease was not necessary to establish public use. The historical society has said it plans to turn the site into a public park regardless of whether it qualifies for the World Heritage list.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that there was no guarantee the historical society would obtain World Heritage recognition for the site after breaking the club’s lease, pointing out that UNESCO had accepted only two of the five sites nominated by the United States since 2008.

Citing a separate case, she wrote that taking the land by eminent domain was not lawful if the public use of the land was “contingent and prospective” and the private use was “actual and present.”

If the Moundbuilders Country Club is forced to move, Mr. Kratoville told The New York Times last year, it is unclear whether it would keep the name. But it would certainly not try to recreate the mounds, he said.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “It would be a different course.”

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