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Harpers Ferry Vigil Highlights Inaction Against Developers

Deborah Fitts

- (September 2007) HARPERS FERRY, W. Va. - Nearly 100 torches blowing in a stiff breeze the evening of Aug. 17 told the story at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A year had gone by and the federal government had yet to call to account the developers who dug 1,900 feet across park property to lay sewer and water lines.

About 80 people attended the evening vigil, sponsored by the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) to call attention to the anniversary.

On Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006, without warning, the developers arrived with heavy machinery and began to dig across the park's Perry Orchard property on Schoolhouse Ridge. Attempts by park officials and even a National Park Service (NPS) solicitor to stop them were unavailing.

By the end of the following day local developers Herb Jonkers, Gene Capriotti and Lee Snyder had installed the lines to their 411-acre Old Standard tract, vastly increasing its value and ability to be developed.

CWPT spokesman Mary Goundrey was among those present for the vigil. "Once it started getting dark it was really fascinating to see," she said.

The Trust spaced the torches about 18 feet apart along the line of the dig.

"It really showed how long and how massive this trench had been." The distance was deceptive because the land rose and fell, she added. "Having the points of light on it was really jaw-dropping."

Other groups present included the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and Friends of Harpers Ferry NHP.

"Underlying everyone's remarks," said Goundrey, "was that we can't let this be a precedent. If this is allowed to happen at Harpers Ferry, it's a matter not of whether but when it will happen at some other park."

The fact that a year has passed without action against the developers raised varying levels of frustration among vigil attendees.

One was park Superintendent Don Campbell. In a phone conversation afterward with the Civil War News, Campbell disclosed for the first time that he had urged the United States attorney in West Virginia to take immediate action while the dig was under way.

"On the date that this was taking place, I personally talked with the U.S. attorney about getting an injunction," Campbell said. "This was a matter for the courts, and an injunction would be the proper way to go. I was not supported in that regard. So the developers were free to go forward."

Campbell stated, however, that things have not been quiet behind the scenes.

"Lawyers representing NPS, the Justice Department and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] have met or conferenced many, many times over the past year, preparatory for preparing the government's case," he said.

"A great amount of time and energy and expense has been expended on this case to date. I would have thought by now there'd be some disposition."

After their success in laying the pipes, the developers twice attempted to convince local officials to rezone the Old Standard tract for intense development.

In April their proposal to annex the property to the City of Charles Town, 5 miles distant, was narrowly defeated. The plan called for 2 million square feet of office space, hundreds of homes, a hotel and a marina. In July the Jefferson County Commission nixed a similar plan.

In August the developers asserted their right to resume mining on the property, once a limestone quarry. Scot Faulkner, head of the Friends of Harpers Ferry NHP, pointed out that the quarry had ceased operations nearly four decades ago, and the mine was under 90 feet of water.

Faulkner, who has spearheaded opposition to the developers and who was one of four speakers at the Aug. 17 vigil, said the year's delay on federal action was "absolutely beyond the pale. That a precedent-setting event involving public lands has gone so long unresolved is an embarrassment to the Justice Department, the Interior Department and the Bush Administration."

Faulkner said that NPS officials had carried out an investigation into the case and had handed their findings months ago to the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney in West Virginia. He said he suspects that the case bogged down in the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who he suggested would have reflected the administration's pro-business bias.

Faulkner noted that the developers claimed the right to lay the pipes because they held an easement on the park land. But there are similar easements on public lands all around the country, he said, and an easement-holder is required to follow a federal permitting process.

In this case the developers applied for a permit but then dropped it, claiming they did not have to go through the process.

"For somebody to go onto one of these parcels with an easement and not go through any permitting process, and destroy resources, is horrendously dangerous," Faulkner said. "But this administration has not acted.

"I think they literally could care less. I feel this administration is so anti-environment, so anti-preservation, and so anti-public lands in general, that they have consciously chosen not to take action."

Faulkner said he was hopeful that with the resignation of Gonzales in late August there might be a chance to place the Harpers Ferry crisis on the front burner. He urged battlefield supporters to "flood" the headquarters of the Justice and Interior departments with letters, calls and e-mails.

"We are just stunned and appalled that the matter has taken over a year now," said Faulkner. As for the developers, "I have to hand it to them for creativity. They have threatened throughout that if they didn't get their way they'd put in a sea of houses."

At least, said Superintendent Campbell , "I guess we feel good" that the developers have so far failed to capitalize on their new sewer and water lines by winning approval for major development.

He hailed the efforts not only of national organizations like CWPT, the National Trust and NPCA, and support locally from the Friends, the Harpers Ferry Conservancy and "hundreds of citizens," but also the local governments of Charles Town, Jefferson County, and the towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar, all of which opposed the developers' plans.

But ultimately, Campbell acknowledged, it's up to the federal government to act.

"We are the stewards of the national parks," he said, "and the public looks to us to be good stewards, and we look to the offices of the national NPS and its policies and processes to ensure that the parks are protected. Certainly this is a violation of law that needs to be addressed."

The August vigil had placed a poignant emphasis on the situation, Campbell believed.

"It was a windy evening, a beautiful warm evening, and all the torches lining the 1,900 feet of trench stayed lit throughout the ceremony," he said. "You could clearly see the line of torches across the full length of Perry Orchard.

"I thought the ceremony, although a terribly sad occasion, was conducted with great dignity and purpose."

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