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Interior Department May Pass On Suit At Harpers Ferry Park

Deborah Fitts

- (November 2007) WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Department of the Interior might not pursue legal action against developers who last year dug across a portion of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, according to a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT).

Jim Campi said that according to sources at Interior, the department is concerned that it would be difficult to win a legal case against the developers, citing inconsistent enforcement nationwide of the regulation that governs utility easements on National Park Service property.

On one weekend in August 2006, the developers used a utility easement as grounds to lay water and sewer lines across 1,900 feet of the park's Perry Orchard tract, located on Schoolhouse Ridge.

The developers said the easement was all they needed to proceed. The park argued that they were required to follow a federal permitting process.

CWPT and several other national and local organizations have been urging federal action against the developers for months, saying that allowing private developers to lay utilities on park land without a permit sets a dangerous precedent.

Campi said the Trust learned in August that the Department of the Interior was considering "an about-face" on the notion of bringing the developers to court, because some department officials "don't think they can win."

He said his sources cited incidents particularly in the West, where some parks simply allow holders of utility easements to undertake work without having to seek a permit.

Although the door is not shut on legal action, Campi said, he has learned that Interior officials are working to revise and tighten up the regulation governing easements in order to prevent a similar incident in the future.

"This lets the developers off scot-free," said Campi. "Our board was very mad when they heard this. We think these guys need to be punished, and they're not being punished. This is the exact wrong message."

Campi said if in fact the federal government fails to pursue the case, CWPT may take action of its own.

"We're looking at options that we as an organization could pursue," he said. "There's a variety of legal options. We're looking at some way to keep this thing alive."

Campi said he learned that, rumors to the contrary, the Department of the Interior had never formally forwarded anything to the Department of Justice for legal action. He said he had also heard that fines that were at one time being considered against the developers "were ridiculously low anyway."

CWPT held a vigil at Harpers Ferry Aug. 17 that drew 80 people to mark the one-year anniversary of the Perry Orchard incident. Local developers Herb Jonkers, Gene Capriotti and Lee Snyder used heavy machinery over two days to lay the sewer and water lines to their 411-acre Old Standard property, multiplying by many times its value and developability. Attempts by National Park Service personnel to halt the digging were ignored.

Park Superintendent Don Campbell was away at presstime and not available for comment.

Since their success in laying the lines, the developers have twice failed to rezone Old Standard for intense commercial and residential development.

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