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Group fights Harpers Ferry development

May 16, 1999

Harpers Ferry ConservancyBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - For groups like the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, it wasn't supposed to happen like this.

The 76-acre Murphy Farm represented one of the most important moments for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and the conservancy dreamed of making it part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

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The farm is in the School House Ridge area, where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson oversaw the capture of 12,500 Union troops in 1862, the largest capture in the conflict.

Near the Murphy Farm, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill executed a decisive flanking maneuver that sealed the fate of the Union forces.

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Last year, the property was one of several the conservancy and The Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park were hoping to buy to protect them from development, which they claimed was about to "kick into high gear."

Development beat them to the punch.

The owners of the Murphy Farm have proposed a 203-home development on the property. The conservancy claims some of the homes will be built where artillery was placed for Stonewall's siege and where the conflict's main area of maneuver was.

"It's a stake in the heart of Harpers Ferry Park. To have that many houses there destroys everything," said Scot Faulkner, president of The Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

"What we're talking about is a whole new town here," said Paul M. Rosa, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy.

Mike Shepp, the project surveyor who has been speaking on behalf of the developers, says the builders are completely within their rights to pursue the project because the farm is zoned residential.

"The question about whether it can be developed or not was made years ago when it was zoned," Shepp said.

Besides, developers Josephine Murphy Curtis and Karen Fuller, who are members of the Murphy family, have set aside large amounts of green space to protect historical sites, he said.

About 47 acres has been designated as open space to protect Civil War trenches known as earthworks and the ruins of John Brown's fort, Shepp said.

The 203 homes planned for the farm is just a fraction of the number Curtis and Fuller could build on the land, Shepp said. Up to 430 homes could be built. Or the developers could have put in 1,230 townhouses or more than 2,000 apartments.

"They're actually providing vastly more open space than is required," Shepp said.

The farm is bounded on the east by the 2,300-acre Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and on the south by the Shenandoah River. The three earthworks on the property are in an open field on a steep hillside leading down to the river.

John Brown's fort was also at the Murphy Farm at one time. After being taken to the Chicago World's Fair in 1898, the fort was brought to the farm and set on a foundation that still exists on the property, Faulkner said.

Several rare plants are also on the farm, as well as a prehistoric archaeological site dating between 8000 B.C. and 1200 B.C., according to the Harpers Ferry Conservancy. But the significance of the site cannot be determined without conducting archaeological investigations, the conservancy said.

The Jefferson County Planning Commission has accepted the project's community impact statement, which notifies utilities and regulatory agencies of what would be involved in the project.

The next step is submission of the preliminary plat to the Planning Commission, which shows how the subdivision will be laid out and where the sewage treatment plant will be.

The final plat, the last phase of approval from the commission, will be submitted in about six months, Shepp said.

Despite the opposition, one member of the Planning Commission doesn't see any reason to stop Curtis and Fuller from building the subdivision.

The land is set aside for housing, and as long as Curtis and Fuller meet the county's subdivision regulations, there is no reason the Planning Commission shouldn't allow the development, said Jefferson County Commissioner Dean Hockensmith, who also sits on the Planning Commission.

Hockensmith said about eight people spoke in opposition to the subdivision during a community impact hearing. He described them as those who "speak against anything in Harpers Ferry."

When asked whether he believes the area should have been zoned differently, Hockensmith replied "I don't believe in zoning, period."

In the meantime, the conservancy has launched another effort to stop the project or reduce the density of homes in Murphy's Landing.

Before the subdivision receives a permit for its sewage treatment plant, the conservancy is requesting that a federal Environmental Impact Statement be conducted for the property. An Environmental Impact Statement is a lengthy study that looks at a project's impact on historical and environmental resources.

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