"They are rotting," said Gordon Gay, the park's chief of interpretation and visitor services.
People who lease the properties would be required to fix them up and maintain them according to federal historical standards, Gay said. Amounts spent to restore the property would be deducted from the rent. Leases could run for as long as 99 years.
The first properties to be offered for rent under the program are on the National Historic Register. They include:
- The Little House near Hancock. Built in 1791, the house had been inhabited until recently and is in good condition, officials said. The land on which the house was built - known as "Sarah's Fancy" - was granted by Lord Baltimore to the Yates family around 1775. Yates sold the property to the Bowles family in 1875. The Bowles family sold the property to the Little family in 1905. The National Park Service purchased the estate in 1976.
- A house once used as a Civil War hospital. Once known as the Myers property, the two-story brick house sits near Pleasantville on a hill opposite Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on up to 14 acres of pasture with a wood frame barn and a brick stable. The house, about 150 years old, was used as a Union encampment.
- A stucco-covered wood-frame home about 12 miles southwest of Hancock in Pearre, near the Woodmont Rod and Gun Club. Thomas Donegan built the 2 1/2-story home between 1866 and 1874.
The Donegan House is near the end of a planned bike trail running to Hancock along an abandoned rail line.
"We don't know how successful we are going to be," Faris said. He said the homes, if leased, would probably not be accessible to the public.
"If we don't find some creative ways to preserve them, we risk further deterioration of these structures and losing them," Faris said.
The Piper House, a bed-and-breakfast on Antietam National Battlefield, is leased from the government in a similar fashion, Gay said.
The National Park Service also is considering leasing some of the 27 lock houses it owns along the canal, including several in Washington County. The lock houses, although in the flood plain, could be ideal for use by a historical society or private nonprofit group, Faris said.
Jack Wetzel, a critic of the deal allowing the state-owned Woodmont Rod and Gun Club to be leased to the Izaak Walton League of America, said he'd rather the properties along the canal would be leased than for them to remain empty. But Wetzel said the other properties in the park currently maintained by private citizens also should be allowed to stand.
In the 1970s, the park service purchased about 200 private properties and allowed the owners to continue using them for 25 years or more, Faris said. As the rights to use the property run out, the park service demolishes the structures, mostly cabins and fishing camps, in order to return the park to a more pristine state.
Wetzel sold his three-room cabin to the park service and has about two years left before he no longer will be allowed to use the cabin.
Faris said those properties are not historic.
The deadline for submitting proposals to the park service on the first three properties is Dec. 4 at 4 p.m.