“Hallowed Ground” and Government’s Relentless Assault on Private Property Rights

October 5, 2006

By Tom DeWeese

Politics is a very cynical, sinister business. As Government has gotten ever bigger and further removed from the electorate, elected officials have become more and more interested in image over actual substance in the issues and programs they promote; their messages created for emotional appeal rather than practical or even legal sense.

Such is the case concerning legislation proposed in the Senate by Senator George Allen and in the House by Representative Frank Wolf, both Republicans who claim limited government as one of their major reasons to serve in public office. Their actions in sponsoring the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area” speak otherwise.

This Heritage Area is designed to cover a 175-mile corridor from Thomas Jefferson’s “Monticello” in Charlottesville, Virginia to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Sponsors of the Heritage Area claim the purpose is simply to honor the many historic sites in the corridor and to help local communities promote tourism.

Senator Allen and Representative Wolf vigorously deny the Heritage Area is a danger to property rights, pointing to specific language in the bill that says they will be protected. They claim the designation serves only to preserve valuable historic sights. The designated area includes many of the locations where the Civil War was fought, as well as the homes of six U.S. presidents.

The reality of Heritage Areas, however, is not so friendly. Heritage Areas are federal land use mandates with specific boundaries foisted upon local communities. Those boundaries have consequences for property owners caught inside.

It must be understood the Heritage Area affects all the land in the designated area, not just recognized historic sights. The federal designation, made up from Congressional legislation, creating federal regulation and oversight through the National Park Service, require a form of contract between state and local governmental entities and the Secretary of the Interior to manage the land-use of the region for preservation. That means federal control and zoning, either directly, under the terms of the “management pact” or indirectly.

Such “indirect” control is the real danger. In spite of the specific language in the bill which states property rights will be protected, the true damage to homeowners may well come from outside private groups and preservation agencies which receive public funds through the Park Service to implement the policies of the Heritage Area.

The funds flowing from the Park Service provide a seductive pork barrel system for private advocacy groups to enforce their vision over the development of the Heritage Area. The experience with more than twenty-four Heritage Areas nationwide clearly shows such groups will convert this money into political activism to encourage local community and county governments to pass and enforce strict zoning laws. While the tactic makes it appear that home rule is fully in force, removing blame from the federal designation, the impact is fully the fault of the Heritage Area designation. The result being private property owner’s rights are diminished and much of the local land use brought to a standstill.

Zoning and land use policies are and should be local decision to be made by locally elected officials who are directly accountable to the citizens they represent. However, National Heritage Areas corrupt this inherently local procedure by adding federal dollars, federal oversight, and federal mandates to the mix.

Specifically, when an area is designated a National Heritage Area, the Park Service partners with an environmental special interest group to restore, preserve, and manage anything and everything that is naturally, culturally, historically and recreationally significant to the Heritage Area. That is exactly what legislation for Heritage Areas states. This sweeping mandate ensures that every square inch of a Heritage Area is a prime target for regulation or acquisition – private property included.

But what of the promised tourism that is supposed to help local economies? Many members of Congress admit they support the concept of Heritage Areas for that very reason: jobs created by people visiting their little part of the world to see why it’s so special. Is it true?

As has been stated, those boundaries have consequences – strict control over the use of the land. Certain industries may prove to be too “dirty” to be allowed. Eventually such existing industrial operations will find themselves regulated or taxed to a point forcing them to leave or go out of business. Property that is locked away for preservation is no longer productive and no longer provides the community with tax dollars. Roads will be closed (to protect the integrity of the historic area). That means the land is locked away from private development, diminishing growth for the community. It also means hunting and recreational use of the land will be curtailed.

Eventually, such restrictions will take away the community’s economic base. Communities with sagging economies become run-down and uninviting. Preservation zoning and lack of jobs force ordinary people to move away. Experience has shown promised tourism rarely materializes as promised. And it’s never enough to save a area economically.

These are the reasons why the specific language in the Heritage Area legislation designed to protect private property rights is meaningless to the actual outcome. While the land is not specifically locked away in the name of the federal designation, its very existence creates the pressure on local government to act. The result is the same.

It is interesting to note that proponents of Heritage Areas refuse to even consider a program to officially notify land owners of pending Heritage Area designations. When specifically asked to include such notification in their plans, they shuffle their feet, say there is no way to do it and then drop the subject. Of course the ability is there. The mail man delivers to each of these homeowners every day. No matter how noble a project may sound, alarm bells should go off when proponents want to enforce their visions in secret.

The fact is, vital historic sights in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Heritage Area are preserved. Much of it is already controlled by the National Park Service. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, to the Manassas Battle Field, to the Gettysburg Battle Field, and several other birthplaces and significant historic sights are well preserved.

The boundaries of the Gettysburg battlefield were specifically laid out by the men who fought there. Most of the land was private and donated by the owners for the park. While protecting private property and the farms across which the battle raged, they preserved the most significant parts into what today is a comprehensive memorial. Such a system of preservation may not be perfect, but it’s superior to a process that uses the massive power of the federal government to rip out the roots of property owners unlucky enough to live near something that should be special and precious.

In contrast, it is significant to note that today, as coercive preservation policy is imposed in Gettysburg, the community has seen the near destruction of its once vital downtown area where private businesses are being forced out. Many parts of the downtown now seem rundown and void of significant businesses like clothing shops or hardware stores. Most businesses in the downtown area today are restaurants and tee shirt shops designed for the tourist industry.

True, some areas of battlefields have been developed and lost to preservation. Given there way, preservations would set out to turn the entire nation into a museum. Some would simply be happier to live in the past and now seem to hide behind historic preservation to try to achieve it.

Every step of land had something from the past occur on it. But let us remember, those who fought on those fields did so to protect our liberty, including the ownership or private property. One must ask how they would react to huge government restrictions over that land now, simply because they fought there. One can envision them again taking up arms to free it from government clutches.

Senator Allen and Congressman Wolf tell us they simply want to honor history. If that is truly their goal then legislation to honor the areas without establishing a flow of cash through the Park Service would be enough. Then, local communities would be free to do their own tourism efforts based on the honorary designation.

In truth, Allen and Wolf are using our great love of history as an emotional sledgehammer to impose a massive federal pork barrel scheme that enriches the pockets of private advocacy groups while helping to impose draconian controls over the dreams of average Americans caught in the cynicism of their political ambitions.

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.