Saving Hallowed Ground

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed a 175-mile swath running from Charlottesville to Gettysburg on its list of the nation’s most endangered historic places. The region encompasses six presidential homes, including James Madison’s Montpelier, Civil War battlefields and other historic sites too numerous to mention. Sadly, this picturesque piedmont of small towns and elegant horse farms is under threat by metastasizing growth in the Washington metro area.

The Washington Post, in “Trust Decries Development in Tri-State Area,” notes that a coalition of 100 groups, working under the banner of “Journey Through Hallowed Ground,” is seeking a designation from the Federal Highway Administration naming parts of Routes 15 and 20 as a National Scenic Byway. The coalition also is developing a teaching curriculum about the area at a local community college, promoting “heritage tourism” focused on the area’s many historic homes and other sites and studying the creation of a “socially responsible” investment fund to purchase land it views as threatened.

The point person in this effort is Cate Magennis Wyatt, former Secretary of Commerce and Trade in the Wilder administration. Wyatt, who lives in the village of Waterford, founded by Quakers in the 18th century, stands right in the path of unbridled growth in Loudoun County. But instead of seeking recourse to the usual array of ineffective local growth controls, she’s pursuing a market-based strategy to preserve the land she loves. First step: Create awareness that there’s something worth saving. Second step, find market-based solutions. Writes the Post:

She said that she hopes to build a public-private effort that will prove that heritage tourism can make money and that she is seeking the resources to buy endangered land to protect it. “We fully recognize that landowners have rights to sell their land, and we are earnestly trying to find a means to purchase land at market rates,” she said.

The people of the piedmont have the most to lose if their homes are overrun by McMansions and crossroads shopping centers. But all Virginians have a stake in this region. I have spent many memorable weekends motoring through the back roads of the piedmont, admiring the manicured, fenced-in fields and the old homes, and enjoying the fruit of the region’s many vineyards. There is no place more beautiful in Virginia, save possibly the Shenandoah Valley. It is the back yard of the Washington and Richmond regions, and allowing it to be despoiled with careless growth is the communal equivalent of junking our own properties with cast-off refrigerators and rusting cars.

Yet Wyatt is right: We must balance our conservationist impulse with respect for property rights, which Virginians also cherish. Let’s hope she can find the formula.

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  1. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    I bow to no one in my love for history and historic places, but I fear that the “market” for history is disappearing.

    When Williamsburg, arguably the most “exciting” historical site in Virgnia, continues to see its attendance decline, there is a problem. The faux history of Busch Gardens (the “evil carnival”) is where the action is. Historic places on the byways on Virginia, having to stand alone, are not the escape they once were, given the traffic and McMansion surroundings.

    Maybe the Jamestown 2007 celebration will help spark a Renaissance in history and historical places, but I am not optimistic. Recent ad campaigns for Williamsburg and Jamestown seem excellent to me, using a hip sensibility. I wonder, though, if visitors won’t be discouraged when they fail to find video games of John Smith saving Pocahantas.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    As far as the Journey through Hallowed Ground is concerned, it is my understanding that this started as an on-line travel itinerary, promoted by the National Park Service. It is listed at along with a number of other historical travel itineraries ranging from Baltimore to Chicago. Surprisingly PEC is not noted on the website nor in the NPS News release, dated May 31 2005, as a partner.

    Yet suddenly, in a matter of days, this on-line travel map has become a historic corridor 150 miles long by 50 miles wide and it is to be preserved and protected bay a team with PEC at the head of the list. Not content with working on serious environmental issues, PEC is now willing to invent a major historical swath of the countryside in order to rationalize its land preservation goals, regardless of the costs.

    This amounts to expanding the PW agricultural crescent in a way that amounts to a greenbelt around the entire Washington area.

    I’d like to see PEC succeed in it’ goals, but I don’t believe for a second that treating people as if they are too stupid to recognize nonsense furthers that aim.

    The National Park Service does recognize Scenic America in its press release. The slogan at Scenic America is “Change is Inevitable, Ugliness is Not.” PEC should adopt that slogan, which is pretty much what I have suggested in previous letters. That, instead of a policy against building anything, anywhere, ever, no-matter-the-cost, might get PEC more popular and financial support.

    In addition we might not have to listen to Chris Miller offer more spin on how PEC is not responsible for a lack of affordable housing.

  3. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    History sells some. Beauty sells a lot. The Piedmont and The Valley are beautiful. I would love to read about a market based solution to preserve the beauty of open spaces, but I don’t have a clue.

    My parents moved from Arlington to Leesburg in 1976. The Good People of Loudon County were horrified at the development of Sterling and Fairfax Co. So, they zoned the county to require minimum 10 acres ‘estates’ and put the burden on the owners for power, roads, etc.

    That kept the peasants out until the late 1980s when the cities expanded their sizes and the developments began.

    So, it wasn’t a market solution, but zoning that impeded growth for decades.

    I’d really like to hear the alternatives. If you put the burden of roads, services, hook ups, new schools in fees for new owners/builders then government has intervened to alter the market and ratchet up entry costs. What are the other ideas?

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, I don’t see how the PEC, through its support of “Journey through Hallowed Ground” is promoting, as you say, “land preservation goals, regardless of the costs.”

    How is educating the public about the region’s history a bad thing?

    How is developing business models for promoting heritage tourism a bad thing?

    How is it a bad thing to raise private funds to purchase historic lands and sites “at market rates”?

    Cate Magennis Wyatt states outright that “we fully recognize that landowners have rights to sell their land.”

    It sounds like you, my friend, are the obstructionist. Your advice to the people of the piedmont who want to preserve their way of life seems little more than, “shut up, stop whining, and get out of the way.”

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    I remember being struck years ago by the beauty of Scottsdale vs. the standard urban blah of Phoenix and noted that there is a great deal you can do with building codes, sign restrictions, height restrictions, setbacks and landscaping, rules which do not prohibit development. Scottsdale was plenty built up but just the absence of billboards and tall signs was striking. I’m sure it added some to costs, but not building a 120 foot McDonald’s Arch might also save some money, and if nobody has a tall sign, nobody needs one. I like that phrase, change is inevitable by ugliness is not. Perhaps the path to compromise lies in that direction.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    We have a market based solution. Conservation groups are perfectly free to raise money and buy whatever they think is most valuable. Their complaint is that they can’t possibly afford all they would like to have.

    I’d like to have a nicer house and I can’t afford it, so I don’t have any sympathy with their complaint. Just as with my desired new house, I have to balance the cost with other needs. If the cost is too high, that is just another way of saying other things are more valuable.

    Conservationists have to compete with people who want homes, for example.

    By putting in place excessively large zoning, these groups have already altered the market in such a way that it is easier for them to acquire large tracts, by effectively taking them out of competition for housing.

    In Fauquier County the plan is for 85% of growth to be contained in the so-called service districts. Mostly the services have not been supplied, but that is another issue.

    We can already see the day when Marshall, for instance, will be built out. When all the service districts are built out, something approaching 85% of the constructed value of the county will be concentrated in the service districts. In turn, the service districts will be more valuable because they are surrounded by land where building, and any enterprise other than farming, is prohibited.

    Those people who are locked out will have contributed substantially to the wealth and environmental well-being of everybody else.

    At the same time, those jammed into the service districts are envious of land-owner “estates”, not realizing the enormous burdens imposed.

    A market based solution to keeping things beautiful is going to have to both reduce the envy of those in the service districts and reduce the cost burden of those who are not. Otherwise, those burdened with the costs will petition to subdivide and sell to those burdened with envy.

    The proper way to balance that is to require that conservation groups seeking to preserve land pay the full going lot price, and not the reduced large acreage price. This places the full cost of their decisions on the shoulders of those who desire conservation, a concept I’m sure EMR would agree with.

    Putting the burden of new infrastructure on new owners does ratchet up the entry costs, but it also doesn’t prevent those costs from being re-distributed through re-assessments. I believe it is a sham idea based on the faulty idea that houses somehow don’t pay their own way unless they are showcase homes that few can afford. Its related to the problem above because it points out that we don’t know how to value some things – we don’t have agreed upon metrics, particularly for things that are shared.

    Suppose that we impose all infrastructure costs on builders and they respond with enormous gated communities. Since they paid for everything there, they would be free to set up tolls and charge admission to cover their costs. But since the residents there ara also taxpayers, they would still be free to jam up our shopping centers and freeways without charge. Is that what we want?

    The proffers and impact fee idea is a bad one and should be stopped.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    No Jim, you misunderstand. The best thing about this plan is that they propose to buy the land they wish to preserve. I support your ideas 100% on this.

    My comment on regardless of costs was partially out of place in this context, and I can see your objection.

    But look at what happens when Marshall is built out and everything else has been purchased for conservation. What happens then, does the market suddenly stop? If there are no new homes and home prices go to infinity, then the cost of conservation goes to infinity, too.

    What I don’t understand is how a Park Service travel itinerary got suddenly blown up into a driving priority for conserving such a vast tract of land. I think over time the basis for setting conservation needs has gotten lower and lower, to the point that it appears that no growth is the only acceptable solution.

    If that was the case, the historical structures they are now using as an excuse to buy up this land would never have been built.

    Looking at the history of the conservation movement, no one would object to the clean air act or clean water act. But when RECRA came along it basically said that anything that is either acid or basic or flammable is hazardous waste. Protecting stream beds (steep hillsides are in the news too) and wetlands is fine, but wetlands should mean more than damp grass. If we tighten the clean air act enough, we will be prohibited to exhale.

    Even Harry Atherton is complaining about expanding the protected area around stream beds, because it will basically eliminate his farmable area.

    When I say without regard to costs, I mean it in this general sense, not with regard to a perticular transaction. However, I object to stacking the deck by first prohibiting parts of the market.

  8. I’ll just say this.

    The National Trust is a great organization because they’re willing to look at innovative solutions (like heritage tourism promotion). They’re the grown ups in the room on these issues, by and large.

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I totally agree, Ray: 10-acre minimum lot sizes are a terrible idea. Proffers and impact fees, which jack up the price of housing for newcomers and raise the price of all housing, is another terrible idea. Most local efforts to control growth backfire. No argument at all.

    But Wyatt is NOT calling for more of the same. You’re lumping her with the smart growth-crowd (or, more accurately, your depiction of the smart-growth crowd). So what’s your beef with the “Journey through Hallowed Ground” initiative?

    As you and I agree that local planning and land use controls are a big part of the problem, why do you see the problem of “sprawl” as the natural order of things? Can’t you see any value in undoing a lot of the destructive regulations that mandate separation of land uses, and large lot sizes and single-family dwellings, and large setbacks, and cul de sac streets wide enough for four lanes of cars, and all the rest?

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, Looks like we crossed wires there. … Right, I agree with you, we cannot freeze everything into place, no matter how much we love the history. Growth isn’t the issue. Yes, we must have growth. Economic growth is good. Population growth is healthy. Rising incomes are to be desired. But that’s not the issue. The issue is this: What does the growth look like? Does it have to look like Manhattan? I hope not. Does it have to look like urban sprawl? I hope not. Is there no room for something in between? There better be.

  11. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim and Ray, so what are the alternatives? What are the mandating regulations – on road size (local or state), what else? The only alternative I have read so far is to buy the land at market price. Educate me, if it is possible.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, where heritage tourism and pristine beaches were the only business as fishing and farming petered out. I have no problem with heritage, tourism, history, or environmental protection.

    Martha’s Vineyard also manages to have signs without having them scream at you. In fact, since size lighting and color are limited Vineyard signs have exhibited a creativity that has become an art form itself.

    The Vineyard has had an excellent system for buying and preserving and making public all kinds of valuable territory, habitats, vistas, beaches, etc.

    The system is based on a tax on land transfers, and since it is an island, the amount of land is stictly limited. As the scarcity of land has increased prices, it also increases the taxes collected on transfers, and the prices the land bank must pay to get their hands on the next conservation property. It is a self limiting system that is fair to all.

    If, when it was established, the founders of the system had proposed a conservation plan of an equivalent scale to the hallowed ground plan, I’m sure it would have failed.

    As good as the Vineyard plan was, I decided the place was too rich for my blood and came here. Fauquier County is now facing the same issues MV was at that time, and making many of the same mistakes.

    Also, at least one area set aside as open space is now being re-opened – for affordable housing. In that case the cost of conservation was deemed to be too high, sort of like what is happening at ANWAR. Affordable housing on the Vineyard happened way too late for me, but things worked out for the best anyway.

    Sprawl on the Vineyard hit a natural limit called the Ocean. Likewise, the area available for roads is strictly limited. In the winter, when 12,000 people occupy the place, there is little congestion. In summer, with 250,000 people the roads are standing room only and bikes outnumber cars 4 to 1. They still need to work on the bike trail system, but by and large they co-exist as a matter of obvious necessity.

    I’m guilty of sometimes using sprawl as a reverse pejorative. All I really mean is that more population is going to need more space, not that the space has to be ugly, inefficient or dysfunctional.

    Had I not been allowed more space by leaving the Vineyard, I guess I’d have to live in waist deep water, because there is no land (I can afford).

    I would absloutely like to undo destructive regulations, but I can’t always figure out which ones are destructive. If separation of land uses weren’t mandated, I’d find some way to use the farm such that I wouldn’t have to leave it to work, maybe. I suspect my multimillionaire neighbors would object to a rendering plant or a truck stop, but there ought to be something they can agree to.

    This is where the winner-take-all mentality kicks in, so there may well be nothing they will agree to.

    I don’t think large lot sizes and single family dwellings should be mandated OR prohibited. We could save a lot on elder care if we allowed people to bring Mom and her caregivers into the home by allowing additional suites or reconfiguring the empty nest, maybe. Even Manhattan doesn’t have to look like Manhattan, but it has allowed Central Park to remain as the most valuable open space on the planet, so there is hope.

    Maybe having all rectilinear streets and no cul-de-sacs is as bad as having all cul-de-sacs contributing to massive problems on the few cut-throughs. Those regulations got put there for a reason, besides, at one time it was the desired ideal.

    Did we go wrong somewhere, or did our values change? Why is it that what once worked no longer does? I’ve got old photgraphs of the farm, when it was still profitable, in what we fondly like to call the good old days.

    The place looked like a dump and raggedy looking colored folk lived in “affordable housing” on the farm. They got paid in live pigs. Reading a book on the lawn involved having chickens scatching at the bare earth around your feet. Was that better or worse than now?

    Maybe I’d like to put another home on the farm, but I’m mostly prohibited from doing it, and if I did I’d be REQUIRED to do it in all they ways we agree are nuts. (ten acres? I’m restricted to 50 acres) Maybe another house out here is nuts anyway, but what if it allows me to continue to preserve whats left, as opposed to selling all to a developer?

    Although I play devil’s advocate, we mostly agree: it’s just that the devil is in the details.

  13. Jay Harrison Avatar
    Jay Harrison

    Very interesting perpsectives. In the first paragraph, second sentence of your blog page, please change “James Monroe’s Montpelier” to “James Madison’s Montpelier.”

    Thank you!

    James “Jay” G. Harrison III, Executive Director
    Orange Downtown Alliance, Inc.

  14. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Jay, Thank you for catching the mistake. Error corrected.

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