After years of often contentious debate, the federal government has agreed to transfer 45 acres to Arlington National Cemetery, which is filling up so rapidly that officials say it will be at capacity within 25 years if it is not expanded.
The $289 billion defense bill signed by President Clinton on Tuesday includes a provision that eventually would transfer the neighboring 37-acre Navy Annex and another eight acres from Fort Myer to the cemetery.
This land could yield up to 30,000 new grave sites for Arlington, where fewer than 60,000 sites remain, officials said. "Now we can preserve for future generations the greatest honor for our greatest heroes, burial at Arlington National Cemetery," said Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
"It's good news," said John C. Metzler Jr., superintendent of the cemetery.
But the law leaves several land issues unresolved and holds open the possibility that some of the property could be used for a national military museum.
Under the terms of the law, the Navy Annex, a 58-year-old defense office on Columbia Pike, would be torn down within about 15 years and the land turned over to the cemetery.
At the request of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), however, up to 10 acres of the Navy Annex land may be reserved for a proposed National Military Museum or other appropriate memorial. "It's one of the last great sites in the Washington area for something like this," Robb said. A special commission created by the legislation will study the proposal and alternate sites.
In addition, the Fort Myer parcels likely would be of little use for grave sites at Arlington unless the cemetery also acquires a piece of National Park Service land surrounding Arlington House, the Custis-Lee mansion, according to Metzler. A National Park Service environmental assessment this summer recommended the transfer of nearly 10 acres of parkland, which would connect the cemetery to the Fort Myer parcels.
However, transfer of that parkland to the cemetery is sharply opposed by environmental groups and the Arlington County Board, which have expressed fears that a grove of old growth forest, including trees that were likely alive when the mansion belonged to Robert E. Lee, would be cut down for grave sites.
Cemetery and park officials insisted yesterday that the old trees would be protected if the land is transferred. The Park Service will likely decide the issue by the end of the year.
A similar effort by Stump last year to transfer the Navy Annex to Arlington was derailed by the Virginia delegation because of objections that local officials had not been consulted on a major land use decision.
But Arlington County officials said they had little input in the new legislation as well. "Sometimes you're just yelling in the wind," said Dick Bridges, a spokesman for the county. "We'd prefer to participate in creating a solution."
The county government had urged that some of the Navy Annex land, which was once part of a community of former slaves known as Freedman's Village, be used for a proposed African American heritage museum. But a Senate aide said the language in the legislation makes such an outcome unlikely.
The rising number of deaths among World War II and Korean war veterans has resulted in about 2,200 grave sites a year being filled at Arlington Cemetery, according to Metzler. With the death rate projected to increase in coming years, all 255,000 grave sites now in the cemetery will likely be gone by 2025, he said.
But some local officials complain that the cemetery and its congressional supporters have exploited the death rate figures to grab land without adequately studying all alternatives.
CAPTION: Sen. Charles S. Robb wants some of the land used for a military museum.