Attacking the Trenches of a Disputed Development

Developers dug unapproved water and sewer trenches last year at School House Ridge Battlefield at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and preservationists note that the issue is unresolved.
Developers dug unapproved water and sewer trenches last year at School House Ridge Battlefield at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and preservationists note that the issue is unresolved. (Courtesy Of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park)
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Motorists caught in rush-hour traffic along Route 340 outside Harpers Ferry last month encountered an unusual sight. Patio torches flickered along a 1,900-foot path next to the highway but still within Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Nearby stood a cluster of protesters, each holding a candle.

The torches marked the site and first anniversary of an illegal excavation by a consortium of developers from Jefferson County, W.Va., who dug two long trenches last year and installed water and sewer lines. They did not have a permit. They did, however, have an easement on the land granted by a former owner who had sold the 38-acre Perry Orchard tract to a preservation organization for $1.5 million in 2005. The land was then given to the National Park Service.

The holder of the easement, Jefferson Utilities, and the other developers have announced plans to build a massive residential and commercial development near the national park. The group had applied for a construction permit but had not completed the process when the excavation took place Aug. 19 and 20 of last year.

Bernard Snyder, president of Jefferson Utilities, did not return a call asking for comment. The privately owned corporation was formed in 1985 for the purpose of owning and operating a public water system in Jefferson County.

The area where the trenches were dug is part of the park's School House Ridge Battlefield, where Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson orchestrated one of the largest mass surrenders in American military history on Sept. 15, 1862. He took more than 12,000 Union soldiers prisoner, a feat described by Jackson biographer James I. Robertson Jr. as "the most complete victory in the history of the Southern Confederacy."

Although the protests of the developers' work last year at Harpers Ferry were immediate and loud, neither the Department of the Interior nor the Justice Department has taken action. At the time of the excavation, the National Park Service released a statement saying it was "actively reviewing the matter with the Department of Justice and considering options for an appropriate response."

This month, a Park Service spokesman said, "The Department of the Interior still has this matter under advisement. In addition, DOI is working to make sure that easement holders of park lands obtain the necessary permits before undertaking construction on park lands."

The speakers at the Aug. 17 candle- and torchlight vigil expressed frustration with the slow response and concern that others may see what happened as encouragement to do the same.

"What happened last summer at Perry Orchard was nothing short of the wanton destruction of one of the nation's great historic treasures," said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "Harpers Ferry and the 390 other units of the National Park system belong to all Americans. We are here tonight to ensure that their sanctity will always be protected from pettiness and greed."

He said members of his organization had contributed $300,000 to buy the land at Perry Orchard.

Alan Spears, legislative representative of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the crowd: "The situation here at Harpers Ferry is particularly tragic because the developers clearly knew they needed to secure permission from the park before undertaking any construction. They applied for the necessary permits but, when the waiting became inconvenient, proceeded without authorization."

Rob Nieweg, director of the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called the vigil "a miserable anniversary."

"A year has passed, but we have not forgotten what happened on this ground," Nieweg said. "We are confident those responsible for this will be held accountable for the destruction they caused."

Scot Faulkner, president of the Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, has tracked the developers' several attempts to secure approval for construction, even taking their request to two jurisdictions. When their annexation request to Charles Town was turned down, they tried unsuccessfully to get Jefferson County to approve their plans.

"Clearly, when the construction was done, these developers already had massive development plans in mind," Faulkner said. "They must have thought that already having access to water and sewer facilities would all but guarantee their proposal's success. Thankfully, first the City of Charles Town, and then Jefferson County, had the vision to reject their unnecessary and ill-fitting development."

Linda Wheeler may be reached at 540-465-8934

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