By the time the Granville Township Trustees had finished leading the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday evening, their meeting hall was so full of people that a line spilled out the door and down a hallway.
And when trustee Rob Schaadt opened the “public comment” period, the stern-faced folks in the room lined up to speak to the trustee at the center of the table, the one who had slipped in through a back door and into a chair between Schaadt and trustee Bryn Bird a minute before the 7 p.m. meeting began.
He is the one who sold 106 acres of his farmland to The New Albany Company. The one who caused frustration and outrage when the community learned that the City of New Albany has indicated interest in extracting water from under that land from an aquifer that supplies drinking water to Granville and Alexandria. The one who left the community wondering how a trustee responsible for the well-being of more than 10,000 residents of Granville Township could do such a thing.
One after another, people came to the microphone, looked Dan VanNess in the eye and asked him how he could have put their drinking water at risk. Some said they were shocked and, as village resident Patty Brown told VanNess, “it’s shocking that you were either that unknowledgable or unintelligent about” the land sales deal he signed. Some also said he betrayed a public trust and should resign.
Several, including Ronda Saunders of Granville, told VanNess, a farmer who has two more years in office, those words no children want to hear from their mother: “Dan, I’m really disappointed in you.”
Before the residents spoke, Schaadt gave VanNess the floor to speak to the crowd of about 50 people.
VanNess, 62, said there had been “lots of speculation” about his motives in selling 106.83 acres along Racoon Creek, just west of Granville, to The New Albany Company’s MBJ Holdings LLC. The holding company bought it for $2,670,000 on Sept. 19, according to the Licking County Auditor’s website. The company purchased the land along old Rt. 161, now known as Moots Run Road, from Daniel D. and Jennifer L. VanNess, who bought the same property for $1.3 million on Jan. 8, 2021.
VanNess also told the crowd that “no one bothered to call me” to ask about the sale. The Reporting Project called him twice in September to ask about the sale, and he did not return those calls.
After the Wednesday evening meeting, VanNess told The Reporting Project that he meant that “no constituents had called,” although the reporter who called him has lived in the township for three decades.
VanNess told the crowd at the meeting that he had been duped by The New Albany Company. The company’s representative, he said, had told him the company wanted the land for “wetlands mitigation,” which he said he thought meant that it would use the land to build wetlands destroyed by development elsewhere, such as in western Licking County, where Intel is building the largest computer-chip manufacturing facility in the world, a $20 billion complex that has overtaken what had been fields of soybeans, corn and one of the largest hog farms in Ohio.
VanNess told The Reporting Project after the meeting that he did not have the promise of wetlands mitigation in writing.
He said The New Albany Company had an option on the property for a year, and because it didn’t exercise that option for most of a year, until “the 11th hour,” he “thought they were going to back out.”
VanNess said that when the Village of Granville learned earlier this year that his land was in contract with The New Albany Company, village officials offered to buy his land, but his lawyers said that a legal battle to get out of the contract would be too costly.
“I just wish that the village had come along” earlier, he said. “I would have sold it to the village at an even cheaper price.”
“I do appreciate everyone’s concern,” said VanNess, who noted that his parents and grandparents had lived in Granville Township. “I will do anything for Granville. I would give the shirt off my back for anyone who needs help or is in trouble. … My allegiance is with Granville.”
He said he’s willing to “sit down with anyone at any time” to discuss this, and even offered to take people for a ride on his “buddy seat” in his combine while he harvests crops.
But he did not apologize to the crowd. And he said he would not resign.
The crowd was not impressed.
“You sold all of us up the river,” said Chris Crader, the first township resident to speak. “You didn’t think about anyone in Granville but yourself.”
Crader, whose property adjoins the land VanNess sold, said the trustee had “screwed over” thousands of people.
“I think you should resign from your post,” Crader said. “By the very definition of trustee, you have eroded the trust people put in you.”
Several residents of the nearby Village of Alexandria who attended the meeting said they are concerned about another threat to the drinking water supply for Granville and Alexandria. They said they have been fighting for months against two proposed asphalt-mixing plants and two proposed concrete-mixing plants – beyond the one concrete-mixing plant already in operation there – and they have appreciated the strong support they have received from Granville officials and residents.
“If you have any respect for your community,” one of them said to VanNess, “you will resign.”
Granville residents Jeremy and Susan King called out VanNess and his fellow trustees for not saying something sooner to the community about this land deal that has the potential to affect all Granville Township residents.
Jeremy King expressed frustration that the township trustees and Granville village officials knew about the option on the VanNess land long before the community learned about it.
“You trustees knew about it, but we were in the dark,” he said.
That was in March, he said, at the same time residents of nearby Alexanrdria were mobilizing against multiple asphalt- and concrete-mixing plants proposed for that village of 500 people.
“You’ve known about this for six … months,” he said. “It’s a joke, and I’m very disappointed in all three of you.”
Susan King said she was shocked and felt betrayed. “What are you trustees going to do to protect our water?’’
Trustee Bryn Bird said the trustees are working on possible ways to protect the drinking-water source for Granville and Alexandria and mitigate the problem that VanNess has created.
In response to a question from the audience, VanNess said he has no plans to sell any more land anytime soon. But he didn’t promise to never sell more land.
After the meeting, when questioned by reporters, VanNess said that “if I would have known they wanted to put in water wells, I wouldn’t have done it.”
He said that he is “as frustrated as” Granville Township residents are. “Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I hadn’t done it.”
He said he has two years in office to win back the trust of the voters.
“I apologize for not asking more questions,” he said. “I just wish I hadn’t done it.”