Journey Through Hallow Ground

June 21, 2006

By Peyton Knight

Just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s dreadful Kelo v. City of New London decision that sparked a national outcry against government eminent domain abuse, some in Congress are preparing to bring a new threat to property owners in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) wants to transform the entire Route 15 corridor, from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, into a National Heritage Area (the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area Act,” H.R. 5195). National Heritage Areas are best described as preservation zones where the National Park Service and designated preservationist groups team up to influence how an area is developed (or not developed).

According to Representative Wolf, “The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Corridor holds more American history than any other region in the country and its recognition as a National Heritage Area will elevate its national prominence, as deserved.” He also claims this initiative is an “effort to create economic opportunity by celebrating the unique place in American history this region holds.”

However, Representative Wolf’s flowery, innocuous rhetoric is little more than sheep’s clothing used to disguise what amounts to a pork-barrel earmark awarded to preservationist interest groups. Worse yet, instead of merely providing pork Representative Wolf’s earmark is purchasing lobbyists.

H.R. 5195 would essentially deputize the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), along with other like-minded preservationist groups and the Park Service, to oversee land use policy in the corridor. This consortium of preservation elitists and federal bureaucrats would form a “management entity” and be given a federal mandate to create an “inventory” of all property in the area that it wants “preserved,” “managed” or “acquired” because of its “national historic significance.”

In an effort to downplay concerns from property rights advocates, a spokesperson for the Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG) Partnership (the umbrella group that is spearheading the Heritage Area effort) claims, “A National Heritage Area … does not interfere with the local authority at all.” Such a statement signifies either extreme ignorance of the legislation or outright dishonesty. In reality, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area Act is specifically designed to interfere with local authorities.

The “management entity” would have the authority to disburse federal monies to “States and their political subdivisions” to promote land use policies that are favored by the entity (including land acquisition) in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. However, taxpayers would not vote on the entity’s leadership or have a say in its direction. In addition, eligibility for membership in the board of directors of the “management entity” would be limited to members of the partnership just prior to the legislation’s enactment.

The special interests couldn’t ask for much more than what Representative Wolf is providing them: a congressionally ordained, members-only club funded by taxpayers for the express purpose of making taxpayers live under the club’s rules.

The bill lists as one of its “purposes” that all “significant historic, cultural and recreational sites in the Heritage Area” should be managed “in a manner consistent with compatible economic development.” And, of course, which sites are deemed “significant” and which types of development are deemed “compatible” is up to the discretion of the JTHG conglomerate.

One of the chief beneficiaries of Representative Wolf’s earmark is The National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization with a clear anti-property rights agenda. Peter Brink, senior vice president of The National Trust, also serves as vice-chairman of JTHG’s board of directors.

As author James Bovard has observed: “Preservationists have ‘progressed’ from targeting specific buildings to targeting neighborhoods and even entire valleys and states for strict, government-enforced controls … The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the premier preservationist organization, has gone from seeking to educate Americans about historic treasures to clamoring for maximum restrictions on private land use across the nation.”

In a much publicized case last year a Louisa, Virginia man who simply wanted to renovate his home ran into stiff opposition from NTHP. Emily Wadhams, The National Trust’s vice president for public policy, argued against the rights of the homeowner in a hearing on Capitol Hill, testifying, “[P]rivate property rights have never been allowed to take precedence over our shared national values and the preservation of our country’s heritage.”

There is little doubt that those who make this ground “hallowed” would take umbrage with Wadham’s brash attempt at revisionist history. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.” Yet, Wadham’s words and NTHP’s deeds make it clear: Fundamental property rights are merely inconvenient barriers to the National Trust’s rigid management agenda.

The National Trust has worked to defeat state ballot initiatives designed to restore the private property rights of landowners. For instance, citizens in both Oregon and Washington have had to contend with the National Trust political machine in their battle to receive fair compensation when the government devalues their land by taking their property rights.

The group also vehemently opposes common-sense road improvements. NTHP lobbied to kill plans for a much-needed “outer connector” that would have brought traffic relief to the heavily congested area near Chancellorsville Battlefield in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Why? According to the National Trust, the connector “would pass within a mile of the park boundary.” How, exactly, a road one mile away from the battlefield would harm it is not clear.

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground debate is about more than how land in the area should be managed. It is a question of who should be doing the managing: Local officials and the citizens to whom they are directly responsible or unaccountable special interest groups and equally unaccountable federal bureaucrats?

We should never seek to honor the heroes of our nation’s founding by trampling the sacred principles for which they fought and died—namely property rights and limited, local government.

Peyton Knight is director of environmental and regulatory affairs at The National Center for Public Policy Research.

Tom DeWeese
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Tom DeWeese is one of the nation’s leading advocates of individual liberty, free enterprise, private property rights, personal privacy, back-to-basics education and American sovereignty and independence.