National Heritage Areas: Assault on Private Property and Local Community Rule

January 21, 2008

By Tom DeWeese

One of the dangerous pieces of legislation lying in wait as Congress reopens for business is the “Celebrating America’s Heritage Act.” The bill has already passed the House (H.R.1483) by a vote of 291-122 and now awaits action in the Senate. Why is it so dangerous?

If passed, it would create six new national Heritage Areas and increase federal funding for nine existing heritage areas by 50 percent. The bill would send over $135 million of federal pork to special interests to be used to influence local zoning laws and help lock away private land in the name of historic preservation.

The six Heritage Areas to be created by the legislation include The Journey Through Hallowed Ground National HA, covering parts of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania and West Virginia; Niagara Falls National HA in New York; Muscle Shoals National HA in Alabama; Freedom’s Way National HA in Massachusetts and New Hampshire; Abraham Lincoln National HA in Illinois; and the Santa Cruz National HA in Arizona.

To understand the massive size and impact of these designations, consider the controversial “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area” (JTHG). JTHG is designed to cover a 175-mile corridor from Thomas Jefferson’s “Monticello” in Charlottesville, Virginia to the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Sold as a way to “honor” and promote tourism to the many historic sites in the area where much of the Civil War was fought, the Heritage Area really serves as a stealth land grab. Heritage Areas are federal land use mandates with specific boundaries foisted on 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 from congressional legislation, like H.R.1483, creating federal regulations and oversight through the National Park Service, require a form of contract between state and local governmental entities and the Secretary of the Interior. That contract is 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 private groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and preservation agencies which receive public funds through the Park Service to implement the polices 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 of development of the Heritage Area. The experience with more than twenty-four such Heritage Areas now in existence 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 Areas 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 decisions 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 environmental or historic preservation special interest groups 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 HR. 1143 says. This sweeping mandate ensures that every square inch of land, whether private or public is a prime target for regulation or acquisition.

But what of the promised tourism that is supposed to help local communities? 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 satisfy environmental special interests. Eventually such existing industrial operations will find themselves regulated or taxed to a point of 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 most assuredly will be closed (to protect the integrity of the historic area). That means land is locked away from private development, diminishing growth for the community. It also means hunting and recreational use of the land will most certainly 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 tourism rarely materializes as promised. And it’s never enough to save an area economically.

These are the reasons why the specific language in the Heritage Area legislation designed to protect private property rights is basically 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 landowners 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 mailman delivers to each and every one of the homes in the designated area every day. No matter how noble a project may sound, alarm bells should go off when proponents want to enforce their vision in secret.

The fact is the Heritage Area designations are completely unnecessary. Most of the historic sites are already under the control of the National Park Service, including Thomas Jefferson’s home, Manassas Battle field (Bull Run – to you Yankees) and Gettysburg Battlefield. Several other birthplaces and significant historic sights are also well preserved.

The boundaries of Gettysburg, for example, were specifically laid out by the men who fought there. Most of the land was private and donated to the park by the owners more than 125 years ago. 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.

This old system of voluntary contributions and non-coerced purchases of the land is far superior to a process that uses the massive power of the federal government to rip out the roots of property owners who are simply unlucky enough to live near something that should be special and precious. Given their way, many preservationist special interest groups would set out to turn the entire nation into a museum.

In contrast, it is significant to note that today, as a coercive preservation policy is imposed in Gettysburg, the community has seen the near destruction of its once vital downtown where private businesses are being forced out. Many parts of 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. That’s not the way for a town to build a future.

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

Proponents of Heritage Areas 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 by helping to impose draconian controls over the dreams of average American homeowners.

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.