Heritage Areas vs. Property Rights

By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

A new front has opened in the long-simmering dispute between conservationists and property-rights activists as Congress has increasingly given federal protection to lands dubbed "National Heritage Areas."

With no official formula for their creation, the areas are designated by congressional action and overseen primarily by private, nonprofit community groups. The nonprofits also have roles in managing land use in the areas, which range from a section of abandoned steel mills on a riverfront in Scranton, Pa., to a stretch of the Hudson River between New York City and Albany.

But historical preservationists are encountering opposition from conservative activists, who see the rapid growth in congressionally created heritage areas as a backdoor way to restrict property owners' rights to develop their land as they see fit.

National Heritage Areas "pose a threat to private property rights through the exercise of restrictive zoning that may severely limit the extent to which property owners can develop or use their property," wrote Cheryl Chumley and Ronald D. Utt of the Heritage Foundation in a recent report on heritage areas. Chumley and Utt said such "regulatory takings" through zoning are the "most common form of property rights abuse today."

Republicans in Congress and property activists say that individuals who own land in these heritage areas now have to answer to a quasi-governmental body about how they develop their property.

Some of the projects, which receive federal funding but are not part of the National Park Service, are geared toward smart-growth revitalization of historically important areas. Others can be designed toward luring more tourists to drive through long stretches of a region with important cultural touchstones.

"By providing federal recognition and financial support, we encourage preservation and interpretation of important periods in our nation's history in a way that traditional units of the National Park System cannot do," Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said last month on the House floor. "Our initial investment 'primes the pump' and ensures that those areas get a solid start toward financial and operational independence."

The number of areas receiving the designation is increasing rapidly. The heritage areas program was created in 1984, and 27 of them were designated through 2005. But last year, another 10 regions received the distinction. Six more were approved by the House last month and await Senate action.

The program is receiving $13.4 million a year from the federal government, according to John Cosgrove, head of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas, an association that represents the groups overseeing the areas. Cosgrove believes that Congress should increase funding so that most of the areas would receive about $1 million a year for the first 10 years of their existence. After that, they would be financially independent.

Before coming to Washington, Cosgrove oversaw the Lackawanna Valley Heritage Area, in the Scranton area. "Isn't that a tired, old coal town whose best days are behind it?" Cosgrove asked rhetorically. Now, that heritage area is helping promote tourism in the region, he said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Natural Resources panel and a longtime opponent of special-interest spending known as earmarks, contends that heritage areas are becoming targets for earmarks, including 24 in the 2007 spending bills that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

But the program has bipartisan support; the House vote to approve the six proposed sites was 291 to 122. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) has estimated that an $8 million federal investment yielded $270 million in revenue for the community in a heritage area in his district.

Democrats want to see more heritage areas. "Given that each federal dollar is matched by local funds, the federal investment in the heritage area program is money well spent," Rahall said.

One of the more controversial proposed heritage areas, the "Journey Through Hallowed Ground" heritage area, is sponsored by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). It runs from Charlottesville to Gettysburg along Route 15, past many American Revolution and Civil War sites.

"We should never seek to honor the heroes of our nation's founding by trampling the sacred principles for which they fought and died -- namely property rights and limited, local government," said Peyton Knight of the National Center for Public Policy Research at the time of Wolf's proposal.

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