The infamous "ODOT Sucks" house is under new management, and big changes are coming to the property.
For more than a decade, drivers in Pataskala looking north on state Route 161 just west of state Route 310 have had their attention drawn to a monument to civil disobedience: a large, yellow sign with red capital letters declaring "ODOT Sucks" that's attached to the south-facing side of an uninhabited, single-family dwelling on Jersey Mills Road.
But Matthew Martin, 35, purchased the property in May 2018 from John Boesch, 56, who crafted and erected the sign. Martin since has begun home renovations, including a new roof, and aims to make it "one of the nicest houses on the block."
So what does that mean for the sign?
"Obviously, I haven't taken it down yet," Martin said. And, surprisingly, he's considering leaving it up. "We'll just have to wait and see."
But why would a new homeowner doing major renovations even entertain the idea of leaving up such a sign? Martin doesn't share Boesch's grievance against the state agency. In fact, he said ODOT has been instrumental in restoring the property by quickly addressing a drainage issue.
He can't say if the agency responded quickly because of the sign, but he did say that the person he spoke with about the drainage issue immediately recognized the address as being around ODOT's "favorite house."
Martin does, however, recognize the symbolic meaning behind the message.
"When this freeway came through," Martin said, gesturing toward Route 161, "it really affected this community deeply."
Though Martin grew up in California, he remembers the quiet Pataskala community from summer visits to a family-owned farm in the area. "A lot of families were torn apart by it."
That's exactly what Boesch, who could not be reached by The Columbus Dispatch for this story, said he wanted people to remember when they saw his makeshift billboard.
"They're going to remember it as long as I'm still breathing," he said in a 2013 interview with the Newark Advocate. "People need to realize ... people suffered to have this nice freeway."
In late 2005, ODOT filed a civil suit in Licking County against Boesch and his wife, Pamela. The department was offering $154,150 to appropriate a little more than a quarter of the couple's 1-acre lot needed for the Routes 161/37 expressway expansion, according to court documents.
But the section of land ODOT needed forced the removal of the home's septic system, making it uninhabitable, Boesch told the Advocate.
After more than a year, the couple reached an agreement with ODOT for about $20,000 more than the original valuation.
The family purchased land in 2005 in Johnstown, where it built the house it currently lives in. However, Boesch told the Advocate that the ODOT settlement money arrived long after the new home was built, forcing them to pay the expenses out of pocket.
Boesch's story was not unusual. For several years during the highway's construction, countless reports of lives being uprooted and homeowners battling for just compensation were reported in the Dispatch and other local papers.
So in 2008, when the first stretch of Route 161 opened, Boesch put the sign up. For the next 10 years, he maintained it.
Countless people have seen the sign. Some have understood its message, including ODOT employees.
"While we've never agreed with the sentiment it expressed, this sign has always served as a reminder to ODOT of the very real impact our projects have on the people of Ohio," ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning said in an emailed statement.
"I think they messed with the wrong guy," new owner Martin said, adding Boesch was knowledgeable about eminent-domain laws and the First Amendment in discussions they had prior to him purchasing the property for $13,000.
Martin often wondered what the story behind the sign was when he would drive by the house.
"It's beautiful. It's such a short, concise statement," he said. "It's almost like art to me. It conveys emotion."
Still, changes are coming to the property. The noise from the freeway is still an issue, which Martin plans to address with soundproofing and other changes. He's considering installing a leach bed for a septic system on the adjacent property, which he also owns.
If Martin decides to take the sign down, he said, that doesn't mean it will go in a dumpster. He's considered keeping it, auctioning it for charity or selling it and using the funds to help pay for his renovations.
Whatever Martin decides, the community, ODOT and thousands of Route 161 commuters will notice.
"We're very interested to see what the future holds for this legendary Licking County landmark," Bruning said.