Conservatives Should Embrace, Not Trample, Journey Through Hallowed Ground

I find myself getting sucked into the controversy over the Journey Through Hallowed Ground more than I anticipated. A group of hard-core property rights groups has rallied against the federal legislation to designate the 175-mile Journey region as a National Heritage Area. I’d ignored these guys until now because I deemed their views not only as fringe but inaccurate and irrelevant.

But there is no ignoring them any more. Ron Utt, a fellow with the Heritage Foundation, and a man whose views I respect (I’ve published five of his columns on Bacon’s Rebellion over the years) has published a paper, “Another Federal Assault on Property Rights: The Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area Act.” A scholar of Utt’s stature, working for a credible organization like Heritage, gives gravitas to the fringe groups that they don’t deserve. Sadly, Utt gets the story horribly wrong.

In a nutshell, Utt views the JTHG as a scheme for strengthening the hand of the landed elite in Virginia’s northern piedmont in their aim to restrict property rights and curtail the development that threatens their lifestyles. In my column this week, “Missing the Point,” I argue (a) that the Journey is a grassroots movement, not an artiface of the elite, (b) that it is dedicated to exactly what it says it is, the preservation of history, and (c) that there is no evidence, only inference and innuendo, to support Utt’s view that the Journey represents a threat to property rights.

There’s a larger issue at stake, which I had hoped to develop in a separate column this week, but lacked the time. Quoting myself:

The challenge, as I see it, is analogous to one that Newt Gingrich articulated in his most recent “Winning the Future” newsletter, in which he outlined the case for “green conservatism.” The conservation and environmental movements have been hijacked by big-government, command-and-control liberalism, Gingrich argues, in large measure because conservatives have spent too much energy criticizing the flaws in liberal ideas and not enough proposing their own solutions.

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground represents a grassroots response pushing market solutions to the challenge of historic preservation. Philosophically, the Journey is consistent with conservative values. It should be held up as a model for emulation. Conservatives are very short-sighted to malign and mischaracterize it.

(Map credit: Journey Through Hallowed Ground.)

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15 responses to “Conservatives Should Embrace, Not Trample, Journey Through Hallowed Ground”

  1. Unless the physical boundaries of this proposed heritage area are really, really narrow, I’m certain to be in the area affected by this. I am neither landed nor gentry — economically, I’m your basic working schlub — but I’m yet to find anything about this that proposal I particularly dislike w/r/t my property rights.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well.. I need to go read Utt’s rant… but my first thought is the hallowed ground that is NOT included… significant… history with respect to the Civil War… like Chancellorsville and Appomattox CH…

    is there a rhyme or reason criteria to what is and what is not recognized as “hallowed ground”?

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Okay.. so I went and read Mr. Utts tome….

    I knew he had an Agenda once he decided to wildly veer from the central question of designation and property rights and started accusing the Park Service of mismanagement… and cites the slow cleanup of ice storm damage as an example .. there goes his credibility…

    What I had read.. and heard was that the Park Service’s budget has been not allowed them to replace people who have left and that includes maintenance folks.

    So I have a problem with different versions of the facts but more, I have a problem with the kitchen-sink perjorative approach in general.. not constructive… at all but divisive.

    finally.. he ends with ..

    “At the very least, the involved governments, including the federal government, should protect the rights of pri­vate property owners.” somehow implying that the preservation evil-doers will someone further abridge property rights.

    I think this borders on bomb throwing to a certain extent because we all know full well that on both sides – there are fringe folks…

    He can do better.. and has in the past…

    I do think his point- even if one disagrees – .. should be recognized .. by the advocates… that wide scope/scale historic designations of privately-held land will stir up folks .. and over the longer run – we need to work together – on what we agree on… and work harder on what we don’t and specifically seek to mitigate polarization….and things that cause it.

    I’m wearing of each side hoping and waiting until “their guys” get in office .. who will then dicate the preferred approach of supporters.

    This is a no-win approach… that fosters a pendalum dynamic.. that benefits no one in my view.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “…a grassroots response pushing market solutions to the challenge of historic preservation.” ?


    How can there be historic preservation without altering property rights? JTHG is promoting this as purely an educational initiative. Yet it is one with overtones of “historical” preservation.

    How do you preserve history? It is like trying to save time: you have to ask what you are saving it for. History is the lives of the people who lived it, not the tangible results of their labors. And, if history is so sacrosanct, why do we spend so much time re-writing it?

    History is the story of change: trying to preserve it by preventing physical change must be some kind of folly. Trying to prevent it by labelling vast areas as hallowed borders on blasphemous. Really hallowed ground should be hallowed: using that idea as a generic label just cheapens the idea.

    Ron Utt has issues, and some good ideas, sometimes. But Larry is right that this is going down in a way that will create a pendulum dynamic.

    If JTHG wants to preserve stuff, and do it in a market friendly way, then they should do what they said they would do: raise the money and buy the properties they wish to see preserved.

    Or, show positively, that their idea of how peoples lives and investments should be made will result in an economic outcome that is better than the free market. I don’t think that is possible.

    If it was really a grassroots response JTHG wouldn’t be necessary. Certainly there is no need for new legislation for them to achieve their goals: all the rules they need arealready in place, unless they want to do it on the cheap.

    Conservation isn’t cheap. And selling the idea that it is cheap or free amounts to misrepresentation at best, and stealing at worst.

    I have no reason to doubt JTHG’s good intentions, I just think that is the way to Hell.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, One of Journey Through Hallowed Ground’s goals *is* to raise private funds, set up a real estate investment trust, and acquire historic properties through purely voluntary market transactions. That’s *exactly* what you’ve been calling for in this blog. I don’t see how you can possibly oppose what they’re proposing.

    You can question the wisdom of building a heritage tourism business, you can question the plausibility of developing sustainable agriculture, you can question whether those strategies, even if they worked, would create sufficient economic value to induce landowners not to sell out to developers. But I don’t see how you can question the idea of preserving history by purchasing the historic properties in free market transactions.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There is an existing model for market-based preservation and it is used by the Nature Conservancy.

    ANY organization that seeks to preserve land .. in a proper way by adequately compensating owners in a willing-seller/willing-buyer transaction… will have one very big fundamental issue – money.

    TNC used to rely on raising funds to replenish their “revolving fund” but it became all too apparent that the amount of significant land.. even with willing sellers – far, far exceeded TNC’s ability to come up with the cold cash and especially so in a timely manner when threats to land were imminent.

    So.. they started buying properties.. and developing some of them… selectively in a way that allowed them to generate funds from the sale of developed properties – funds that then could be used to purchase land and/or permanent easements.

    If this is what the JTHG is trying to accomplish with REITs then I would applaud them.. and would also think that Ray would.. as JAB has pointed out.

    The JTHG boundaries are arbitrary .. no rhyme or reason that has to do with significant history that I can understand, . .though… and I guess they wanted to first establish a viable preservation model.. for a specified area (even if arbitrary) then if that model is successful.. expand it.

    so a resounding YES!

    If corporations and wealthy individuals can set up tax-shelters that benefit individuals wealth.. why not let Preservation folks use the same rules to benefit… preservation…????

    goose, gander…

    and again.. I say.. I’m totally weary from the seemingly neverending push/shove dynamics between those on the fringes of both the property rights and the preservation movement.

    We need folks willing to dialogue and build enduring relationships with their opponents – on areas that we can agree on… and have those same folks.. using their same commitment to meaninful collaboration.. take on the tougher areas of disagreement.

    Patience and respect of principles and values… is the way to go.

    I’m against the folks.. on both sides who believe that if they only could get “their guy” in office that they would be able to “slam dunk” their agenda…

    it dont work.. even when it appears to work.. because sooner or latter the other guys get in office and one of their first actions is to “roll back” the “extreme” policies of their predecessors…

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I think a Larry has hit it on the head. The Land Bank on Martha’s Vineyard works in a similar way to what he described and with considerable success. But his comments point out that you cannot save everything: there isn’t enough money in the world unless all the peole that already own it provide a true grass-roots movement.

    The article about Belvedere shows that developers can conduct business and have a conscience, while larry’s remarks show that conservationists can have business sense.

    So, what’s the problem? If we work together we can build and preserve beauty and value both. I think it is as Larry suggests: whacko’s on both ends of the spectrum.

    It is true that one of Journey Through Hallowed Ground’s goals *is* to raise private funds, set up a real estate investment trust, and acquire historic properties through purely voluntary market transactions. That’s *exactly* what I’ve been calling for in this blog.

    So why do they need legislation, land “designation” etc.? All the tools they need already exist.

    I think it comes down to what is purely voluntary. Even if JTHG boils down to nothing more than a giant peer pressure machine, it still takes some of the voluntary nature of the transaction away.

    Anyway, part of what bothers me is that the investment trusts and land acquisition were part of the early hype, but I haven’t heard so much about it lately. The more recent message seems to be that this is purely an educational instrument, with no land expectations whatever.

    I find that unconvincing, and the change in message smacks of handling by professionals, not a grass roots effort.

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, the reason you have heard less about JTHG’s land acquisition plans is that they are on hold until the National Heritage Area designation is passed. Before Cate Wyatt can go running around and raising money, saying, “Invest to protect this national treasure,” it helps to have the federal Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: confirmation that, yes, this area does have a nationally significant heritage worth preserving. Basically, it’s all about perception and marketing.

  9. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Ray Hyde said what I think on this issue better than I could have said it.

  10. Groveton Avatar

    How many people will live in the United States one hundred years from now?




    The Feds already own 1/3 of the land.

    No come the preservationists – wanting to lock up more.

    In 2107, how will those 600M Americans be fareing?

    The more land you lock up forever the less land there is for a fast growing population to own.

    Land ownership is a hallmark of a healthy middle class.

    A healthy middle class is the best hedge against anarchy and revolution – historically speaking.

    Keep taking away large chunks of land and putting them under “management entities” forever.

    Why not?

    Rich former developers know so much more about the world in a hundred years than the people who will live in that world in 100 years.

    That’s not conservatism, that’s arrogance.

    You’re being snookered on this one Mr. Bacon.

    Bunch of rich people want to live out in “bed and breakfast” country rather than facing an encroughing middle class trying to buy some land.

    Let them eat cake.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Anyone who thinks we are “running out of land” or that our increasing population will result in the same outcome.. needs to spend some time away from their favoriate urban area.

    Take a trip to central or Southwest Va or Western Md or I can name a 1000 places.. where you count acres per person rather than the other way around.

    So what is this really all about?

    It’s clearly not a situation where setting aside land is going to result in a situation where the middle class can no longer own land.

    Not only can they own land, they can own hundreds of acres of land for what their 800K house costs in NoVa.

    Methinks this is about money – not land.

    and more to the point, it’s about folks being able to make money off of land transactions… as opposed to land being “locked up” forever so that the middle class becomes, in effect, “locked out” of land ownership.

    Rich folks… ALWAYS will be able to buy more “stuff” (including land) whether it be in urban, suburban or rural areas.

    Is the complaint here.. really.. that it’s “unfair” that rich folks can afford Mercedes and 100 acre estates whereas the “smucks” can’t get a break?

    So I guess I have a really hard time… seeing and understanding claims that land preservation efforts hurt the middle class or threaten the existence of the middle class.

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, You harbor the mistaken assumption that there is anything remotely resembling a scarcity of land in Virginia/the United States and that land conservation, combined with a doubling of the population over the next 100 years or so, will create a scarcity for middle-class housing.

    Let me address first the idea that the population of the U.S. will *ever* double. With birth rates hovering around replacement level, and no sign that they’re likely to increase, the only source of population increase will be immigration. But fertility rates are declining just about everywhere around the world (even the Middle East), including Mexico and the rest of Latin America. There is every indication that within 25 years, that illegal immigration will cease to be a problem.

    But let’s grant your proposition that the U.S. population continues on the same growth trajectory. Is there a lack of land in Virgninia?

    No. Indeed, there is no lack of land within current metropolitan areas — if only local government would get out of the way and allow market forces to drive re-development of the land at higher densities. That would mean smaller lots, but as long as the redevelopment were driven by market forces in which consumers made their own trade-offs of space vs. cost, then you shouldn’t have a problem with it.

    If, over the next 100 years, Fairfax County evolved to the same population density as Arlington County — hardly an urban hell-hole — it could absorb more than one million more people. Prince William could absorb another 1.4 million or so (rough numbers). That would accommodate a doubling of Northern Virginia’s population right there.

    Admittedly, higher densities would mean more traffic congestion in the absence of fundamental change to our transportation system. The region would have to create balanced communities, emphasize transportation-efficient development patterns, implement congestion pricing, and invest in shared ridership systems. There is no compelling reason to extend the exurb all the way to Charlottesville.

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Actually, the middle class can (still) buy a lot more stuff than the rich. Sure, the rich have more money individually, but the middle class has more in the aggregate.

    That is why a plot of land is worth more in small lots, than as one large lot: there are more people who are able to compete for the small lots.

    Groveton is right: you are being snookered on this. As it is presently being practiced, conservation is a game for the rich to play. By preventing subdivision, we keep more large tracts of land available. these are tracts that only a very few truly wealthy indivisuals can buy. Therefore the fewer bidders and the more large lots, the lower the price for them.

    Meanwhile the absence of smaller lots makes those prices much higher. Exhorbitant proffers required for subdivision make them higher still. this hurts the middle class three ways 1) Higher home prices, 2) higher taxes on the higher assessments. Yes, I know, the taxes don’t have to be higher unless our representatives spend more, but historically those higher valuations represent too much revenue to pass up. The middle class takes that cash out of the college fund or someplace else.

    What is the third way? There exists a landed middle class: people who have land and not much else. Conservation and its associated rampage against development hurt these people a lot.

    I think there is a lack of land in urban areas. In Arlington young adults looking for playing fields have to go to the public hearings and plead their case against mothers looking for stroller parks, and pet owners looking for dog parks. And land for development follows the same rules as above: the smaller the pieces, the more people can compete for it, and the higher the prices.

    Guess who owns those parcels? People who bought them a long time ago, (the landed in-town middle class) and wealthy people in the land business. They know that encouraging conservation elsewhere acts as a direct subsidy to their developable interests in town AND their estate interests out of town.

    I think conservation is important, but it is also important that we understand how the game is now being played. Last year there was an article in the new York Times Magazine about Toll Brothers and their land quests. It stated emphatically that the conservation movement was the biggest profit builder ever developed for developers.

    Groveton is right. You are being snookered on this. If we wnat to save land,there are two ways to do it, either we can buy land and keep it safe individually, or we can have the government buy it for is, using our contributions in the form of taxes.

    What we are doing now is using tax dollars to create private parks which then get perpetual tax favored treatment.

    While the rest of us get perpetual tax increases, for the purpose of “saving” more and more and more land – that we are not even allowed to walk on.

    And as Larry points out, there is no sense of priority in how this is done, not that there is any shortage of land. There is a shortage or really important land, and that includes playing fields for young adults as much as it does playing fields for young bobcats.

    There isn’t even a modest sense of how much conservation land is enough, let alone how much is too much. Ask PEC at what level they will be willing to concede they have succeeded, and no more conservation is required, and see what kind of answer you get.

    I asked that question once, and judging from the expression on her face, you would have thought I had slapped her.

    Then consider the truly enormous swatch of land that JTHG has their eyes on, and ask yourself where it stops.

    Now, if somebody told me the goal was 20% or 30% or 50% and if they could justify such a goal, then I could get on board. but what ai see instead, not just here but across the nation, is a creeping insistence on more, and more, and more.

    In the defense business we call it requirements creep.

    First its no building in a fifty year flood plain, then a hundred, then two hundred, then they redefine the flood plain, so that what was fifty year is now two hundred year.

    First it is no building on slopes above 30%, then 20%, then 10%.

    First we downzone, then we increase the minimum lot size, increase the setbacks, double the drainfield requirements, triple the proffers, and finally eliminate the administrative lots, then the family lots, and then the auxiliary homes.

    All in the name of conservation.

    The ony thing we are conserving is rich people’s money.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “That would mean smaller lots, but as long as the redevelopment were driven by market forces in which consumers made their own trade-offs of space vs. cost, then you shouldn’t have a problem with it.”

    I agree completely, so tell me why that argument doesn’t apply equally to lots of a hundred acres or fifty, or ten, or five, all the way down to condos?

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ray – I think you confuse the purpose of conservation with the purpose of taxes/proffers levied for infrastructure.

    People need schools and roads and libraries and fire stations, etc.

    When new people move in to an area and a a new school is needed to teach their kids…ditto for a new fire station, etc – then it is perfectly fair and appropriate to have each of them pay their pro-rata share of the additional infrastructure that will need to be built to serve them.

    This is really no different than each of them paying for a water/sewer connection – over and above the monthly operational fees.

    This is not unfair and the costs are not levied to penalize people nor the development of land to provide those people with places to live.

    Conservation of land – is a separate issue.

    I do not consider soccer fields and dog parks nor golf courses to be conserved land. It is land developed for a purpose – for people to use it.

    There is indeed a question as to how much land needs to be allocated for that purpose – the same way we decide how big a school or libary or fire station needs to be – to adequately serve the needs of the people that are served.

    You seem to want to group the infrastructure issue and the land conservation issue into one issue and from that point on – I think some of your arguments lack rationality… and at times sounds perhaps a little extreme at least from my perspective.

    I simply don’t think there should be any arguement on the infrastructure issue. It costs what it costs to provide a school seat or a fire/ems capability and the infrastructure cost (as opposed to the operational cost) for new infrastructure legitimately belongs to the new folks who need the new infrastructure.

    Again.. this is not a penalty but a legitimate allocated cost.

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