HOWARD – Two local entities are working together to transform a destitute village corner into a recreational access point.
The Knox County Land Bank recently sold three parcels of land on the northeast corner of Route 36 and Howard-Danville Road to the Knox County Park District for $5,000. According to Park District Director Lori Totman, the land will eventually be used as an entryway to Hellbender Preserve, a 15-acre site alongside Jelloway Creek in Howard.
“At present the only way to access Hellbender is to park at the Kokosing Gap Trail in Howard, walk the trail and the preserve is adjacent to the trail,” Totman said in an email. “These parcels will give us access from the road.”
Hellbender Preserve is named after the Eastern Hellbender, the largest amphibian in Ohio and one of the largest salamanders in the world. Eastern Hellbenders live in the “clean, high-quality waters of Jelloway Creek and the nearby Kokosing State Scenic River” according to the park district’s website. They can reach up to 27 inches long and typically feed on crayfish, snails, minnows, insects, and worms.
Eastern Hellbenders are endangered in Ohio and in 2016, 77 were released into the Kokosing River through a joint effort from researchers at the Toledo Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Ohio Biodiversity Conservation Partnership at Ohio State University.
Hellbender Preserve gives visitors access to beaches along Jelloway Creek, where they can see the creatures in action. The area is shaded by buckeye trees and surrounded by wildflowers. Bird-watching opportunities arise in the spring and summer, as Baltimore Orioles, Belted Kingfishers and Northern Cardinals typically populate the area.
The park district plans to build a parking lot on the corner of Route 36 and Howard-Danville Road, which will include “three or four” spaces, Totman said. Stairs will be built into the hillside, so that visitors can walk directly from the parking lot down to the preserve. Totman said the park district may choose to build a bridge over Jelloway Creek, which would connect the bike trail to the new Hellbender Preserve access point.
However, she added that the park district “may not have to do that, which would speed up the process.”
The park district hopes to complete the project this year, Totman said, although timing will depend on the labor source.
“Are we going to be constructing this in-house, with part-time operations managers? If we have to contract for the staircase, we’re probably going to have to push this into 2021,” Totman said.
The park district is also preparing to tackle other infrastructure projects in 2020, including the construction of a new Heart of Ohio Trail access point near Mount Liberty. The district is looking to build a parking lot on Patton Road, across from Collins Country Greenhouse and Farm Market, which would allow people to access the Heart of Ohio Trail via a concrete path.
This project was supposed to be done last fall, Totman said, but had to be pushed back to this spring due to inclement weather.
“We know we’re doing that this year,” she said of the project.
Totman likened the Hellbender project to the access point at Honey Run Falls, which includes a steep staircase built into a hillside. The park district had to be careful not to create soil erosion problems when constructing that staircase, she noted, and the Howard project will require similar attention to detail.
Land Bank President Jeff Gottke seemed excited about the opportunity to partner with the park district. Before last summer, the land bank had owned two of the three corner parcels – the triangle-shaped piece of land on the corner (12342 East St.) and the long-vacant one-story residence two houses down (12346 East St.) – having acquired them from the county’s forfeited lands list.
Properties end up on this list, maintained by the auditor’s office, when they pass through two sheriff’s sales without being purchased. The house at 12346 East St. had been vacant since the 1990s, Gottke said, and was “open and unsecure.”
This summer, the one-story residence in the middle (12344 East St.) went up for sale. The land bank bought the property in July for $15,000, Gottke said, which allowed the agency to turn around and market the entire corner to potential buyers.
“We were just thinking about, ‘What do we do with these three non-contiguous parcels that nobody really wants?’” Gottke recalled. “So we were really glad when that house in the middle came up for sale and we were able to join all three of them together.”
The land bank reached out to those neighboring the property, Gottke said, including the Knox County Commissioners, who own the Kokosing Gap Trail below. They were not interested.
However, the park district was.
“Lori Totman said she wanted it for the nature preserve because it would provide public access from a public street down to the preserve,” Gottke said.
The land bank agreed to sell all three parcels to the park district for $5,000, which would pay for the demolition of the existing structures on the property. The two one-story homes were flattened this fall, Gottke said. The sale officially went through Dec. 5, according to records from the county auditor's office.
“The Land Bank lost $15,000 on this deal,” Gottke explained, “but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re not here to make money, we’re here to return properties to productive uses.”
Totman said the corner property will give the park district a more “high-profile” entryway to Hellbender Preserve, making it more attractive and accessible. Without the land bank’s involvement, Totman said the project likely would have never happened.
“Had it not come through the land bank, it’s probably not something we would’ve gone after…” she said. “But it just seemed like a good, collaborative effort. They wanted to clean up that corner and we’re like, ‘Well, it’s adjacent to what we own, so why not?’”