Hallowed Ground or Sprawl?

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The New York Sun

Senator George Allen of Virginia has other things to worry about in his re-election campaign this fall — for example, his much-publicized use of a racial insult last month that led him to make a nearly endless series of apologies.

But if he’s done apologizing, at least for the moment, he might want to direct his attention to his rightward flank, where he will discover an unexpected source of irritation from his conservative constituency over the usually benign issue of historical preservation.

Or at least the issue must have seemed benign when Mr. Allen agreed earlier this year to sponsor Senate bill 2645. The bill would establish a National Heritage Area along U.S. Route 15 from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, down through western Maryland to the Potomac River and deep into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, terminating at Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello.

It would be difficult to find a stretch of territory richer in American history — or a rural area more susceptible to the encroachment of “townehome communities” and box stores from the ever-swelling suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The heritage area would encompass not only Monticello and Gettysburg but also the Civil War battlefields of Antietam and Chancellorsville, the homes of Presidents Madison and Monroe, the country retreat of Theodore Roosevelt, the hideout where John Brown planned his raid on Harper’s Ferry — the list goes on. And almost all the sites are directly in the path of Washington’s future exurbia.

Since most of the proposed heritage area lies in Virginia, it seemed simple enough for Mr. Allen, a confessed history buff, to sponsor the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area Act,” and for other local Republicans to join a similar effort in the House of Representatives.

But these days nothing is simple within the increasingly contentious conservative coalition, divided as it is among anti-immigration pro-lifers, pro-immigration internationalists, free-market pro-choicers, and anti-cloning protectionists. Am I leaving anyone out?

Last month, a group of property-rights activists condemned Mr. Allen and his bill for betraying the catechism of individual liberty, small government and local control.

“Senator Allen often describes himself as a ‘Jeffersonian’ conservative, which he defines as someone who doesn’t like ‘nanny, meddling, restrictive, burdensome government,'” mocked Peyton Knight of the Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research. “However, if you fail to support your rhetoric with substance, you’re all hat and no cattle.”

Another activist accused Mr. Allen of wanting to “milk millions of dollars from the nation’s taxpayers” so preservation-obsessed elitists could “mandate gentrification of the rural landscape.”

Gentrification? Elitist? You might as well call poor George Allen an “equestrian.” Among today’s populist conservatives, them’s fightin’ words.

Mr. Allen’s response has been typical of a politician who unexpectedly finds himself bucking his base. He wants to reassure both sides simultaneously — preservationists on the one hand and property-rights advocates on the other — and the only way to do this is to brag that the bill is a critically important measure that will have almost no practical effect.

And oddly enough, he’s probably right.

The designation “national heritage area” is a recent concoction of Congress. While sounding vaguely reminiscent of “national park,” the tag carries none of the force of a park designation. It doesn’t, for example, empower the national government to condemn private property and subsume it under federal control.

Instead, heritage-area status is linguistic pixie dust, sprinkled over some charmed region with a wave of the federal wand. The designation provides a little cash — usually less than $1 million a year — and an incentive for local governments to align with local businesses, community groups and the National Park Service in marketing the area as a tourist destination.

Indeed, previous heritage designations have been tailored to areas slowly dying from lack of economic growth: the hollowed-out coal fields of Pennsylvania or the abandoned mill towns of the northeast.

The critics are right to note that Mr. Allen’s proposed heritage area does something new. The “hallowed ground” in this case isn’t threatened by economic decay but by economic vibrancy, in the form of homebuyers fleeing Washington’s high housing prices.

The goal of Mr. Allen’s heritage area along Route 15 is to steer the region’s economy away from the development of a loose constellation of bedroom communities connected by Wal-Marts and Targets in favor of milder, slower growth that would preserve some sense of what the country was once like.

Preservationists, united in a group called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, have offered their alternative vision of benign economic growth: a picturesque region “connecting heritage attractions and hidden gems, including presidential homes, national historical landmarks and civil war battlefields, with nearby B&Bs, wineries, music festivals, and a myriad of activities along the way … “

This is less a heritage area than a vision of yuppie heaven, all that’s missing is tax breaks for crafters of artisanal breads and amusing cabernets.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the treasures along Route 15 don’t need some protection, however slim. In supporting heritage status Mr. Allen was drawn by an older strain of conservatism — the kind based on a reverence for the past — that coexists uneasily with conservative admiration for the “creative destruction” of the free market.

For Republicans, as for anyone else, his should be a perfectly defensible position. It requires no apology. Besides, he has done enough apologizing for one campaign.

Mr. Ferguson is a columnist for Bloomberg News.

The New York Sun

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