Eastern Shore land battle comes to Capitol Hill
By Ben Pershing,
In the northernmost county of Virginia’s Eastern Shore sits a quiet, 32-acre parcel of land, thick with grass and little else — except controversy.
Though mostly empty, the land, which was handed over to Accomack County by the federal government in 1976, holds future economic promise, as it sits near NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
So this week, the House will take up legislation to remove restrictions on the property, allowing it to be developed. Such land transfer bills are usually routine business on Capitol Hill, passing with broad bipartisan support under rules allowing for expedited consideration.
Not this time.
To local officials and congressional Republicans, the issue appears clear: The land isn’t being used now but could be developed into Wallops Research Park — a convenient location for companies looking to do business with NASA, many of whom currently choose to locate just over the border in Maryland.
But opponents, including some House Democrats, believe the measure would set “a devastating precedent,” by letting a locality take land it received for free from the federal government for one specific purpose and convert it to another without paying for it.
Amid the conflicting arguments over this plot of ground, one fact appears clear: Nothing much is going on there now.
“It is really not usable” for anything recreational, Wanda Thornton, a member of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, said in an interview Monday.
The land used to have a single baseball field, but it has long since grown over and has not been used for years, Thornton said. Much nicer fields have been built nearby.
Some of the land is so overgrown, Thornton said, that when she drove to it recently to take photographs, her car “nearly got stuck going in.”
Testifying before a House subcommittee in September, Thornton noted that the land “had essentially no value” when the National Park Service first handed it over 35 years ago.
Accomack County got the land under the Federal Lands to Parks Program, which was created in 1949 to help give “surplus federal land” — roughly 169,000 acres so far — to local communities. The NPS says the land “must be used for public park and recreational use in perpetuity.” If a local government wants to develop the land rather than use it as a park, it has to either buy it or offer to exchange land of equal monetary value.
The problem is that with the NASA facility next door, the federal government has determined that the “fair market value” of the Accomack County land is $815,000.
“Accomack County is one of Virginia’s poorest,” Thornton testified in September. “We certainly do not have a million dollars or more to spend on the purchase of land and the construction of a new park.”
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), the sponsor of the House bill, said Monday that the park service “valued it as if it was a research business park, and it’s not. They got the cart before the horse on the valuation.”
Rigell and local officials have tried without success to convince the NPS to agree to a swap of land with the same “recreational value,” but a smaller monetary one.
Rigell’s bill got some bipartisan support when it cleared the Natural Resources Committee last year with a half-dozen Democrats joining Republicans in support (11 Democrats voted against it). It won’t be fast-tracked, but it is likely to pass the House this week. Its fate in the Senate is less clear.
Opponents of Rigell’s bill argue that the debate is about much more than this one plot of land.
“Not only does this legislation renege on a deal signed by the County, it also sets a devastating precedent,” nine Democrats wrote in the “dissenting views” section of a report on the bill issued by the Natural Resources panel.
“Allowing Accomack County to capitalize on a parcel of free federal land,” they wrote, “while requiring other communities to abide by the terms of their agreements, cannot be justified and threatens the integrity of this popular public recreation program.”
Herbert C. Frost, an NPS associate director, noted in testimony last year that the federal government had “increased the quantity and quality of Accomack County’s public parkland . . . at no cost to the county.” He said his agency “would be willing to work closely with Accomack County to explore the possibility of an exchange.”
Since Accomack isn’t willing to cough up $815,000 worth of land, changing the law appears to be the only option. Thornton, for her part, finds that frustrating.
“It’s unacceptable to me,” she said, “when the government can’t work with the local entities.”