Preserving Hallowed Ground

Cate Magennis Wyatt, executive director of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground
Cate Magennis Wyatt, executive director of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground (Journey Through Hallowed Ground)
By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2005

Housing developers today have replaced the sharp-shooters scouring the rolling hills around the Gettysburg battlefield.

Tourists visiting the formal rose garden outside the 22-room Greek revival mansion called Oatlands in Leesburg could soon be watching 277 families grilling dinner on their backyard decks in a proposed housing development nearby.

And Monticello officials are seeking to reverse a steady erosion in the number of visitors making the pilgrimage to President Thomas Jefferson's storied home.

These are among the issues confronting a grass-roots coalition that is seeking to preserve and promote the 175-mile long swathe of land along Route 15, the Old Carolina Road, a rural crescent that stretches from Gettysburg in Pennsylvania to Monticello in Virginia. It's a region that's squarely in the path of Washington's dynamic westward suburban expansion, where eager home buyers are flocking to buy affordable homes for their families.

But the preservationists, who have dubbed the effort the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, after President Abraham Lincoln's famous words after the Gettysburg battle, think they have found a new tool: They are seeking to have the region named a national heritage area, a relatively new and increasingly popular designation created by the National Park Service.

Local boosters say the heritage area designation will increase the chances of preserving the region's rural feel, draw new tourism to the area and help its numerous historic sites market themselves more effectively.

But the effort has also drawn opposition from vocal property rights advocates such as J. Peyton Knight, executive director of the American Policy Center in Warrenton, who has testified against national heritage areas in the past. "These designations choke off entire areas from the necessary housing development and community development they need to sustain themselves," he said.

This fall, U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R), whose Western Maryland district straddles that state's portion of the region, plans to introduce legislation that would create the new heritage area in the House of Representatives. A similar bill is to be be sponsored in the Senate, Bartlett said.

The Journey contains an awesome cluster of historic sites, encompassing six presidential homes, including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier, James Monroe's Oak Hill and Ashlawn Highland, the Dwight Eisenhower cottage in Gettysburg and President Zachary Taylor's birthplace in Virginia. Other famous dwellings housed Chief Justice John Marshall and Gen. George C. Marshall, who in his Leesburg house drafted the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover after World War II. Camp David, meanwhile, remains a favorite presidential getaway spot.

The region also contains the largest collection of Civil War battlefields: Not only Gettysburg, but also Antietam in Maryland and Manassas, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Cedar Mountain in Virginia, as well as sites of many smaller skirmishes.

"No other land in America has been more fought over," said Cate Magennis Wyatt, executive director of the Journey, a Waterford resident who helped develop the Lansdowne project in Loudoun County and who served as state secretary of commerce and trade in the administration of Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (D).

National heritage areas are a 20-year-old Park Service device that does not restrict land uses the way a national park does, but rather allows regions to collaboratively market themselves under the Park Service name, organize themselves as heritage tourism destinations and help inspire a sense of regional cohesion. The designation has little immediate effect on homeowners. It has, however, been effective at helping regions raise money for marketing programs that boost tourism and at sparking expansion of home-grown businesses such as restaurants and boutiques.

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