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Group wants to double park's size

July 30, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A new plan has been devised to nearly double the size of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, but as it has in the past, the idea is still generating mixed feelings.

Last year, a group known as The Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, along with Civil War historian Dennis Frye, asked the Jefferson County Commissioners to approve a resolution enlarging the park's boundaries enough to nearly double its size.

But the resolution would have established only a "paper boundary."

Three land trust organizations would have had to purchase property from landowners to make the expansion complete.

But landowners were fearful the paper boundary would eliminate their ability to get a fair market price from the land trusts.

This year, the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, another local land trust organization, is proposing a different plan.

The group wants to do away with a paper boundary and instead concentrate on getting a federal appropriation to buy land from the property owners.

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Commissioner Edgar Ridgeway said having the U.S. Parks Service buy the land from property owners on the open market is a more fair approach.

But other members of the commission have concerns.

Commissioner James G. Knode said about 25 homes would be surrounded by park property if the expansion took place. The homeowners could stay put but would in effect be isolated by the boundary.

"We don't know directly one way or another how (the homeowners) feel," said Knode.

Commissioner Dean Hockensmith said he is concerned about the amount of federal taxpayer money that would be spent to acquire the land.

Congress would have to appropriate about $20 million for the land, said Paul Rosa, executive director the Harpers Ferry Conservancy.

Hockensmith said he is also worried about more land being taken off county tax rolls. Federal government lands are exempt from county property taxes.

"Really, I don't think the county needs more federal land," Hockensmith said Thursday.

Hockensmith made a motion to oppose the expansion plan Thursday, but the commissioners defeated it on a 4-1 vote.

The commissioners' approval of the plan is not needed for it to progress, but Rosa wants them to endorse it because U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., likes to know if there is consensus on issues locally, Rosa said.

The property being eyed for the expansion is primarily School House Ridge, a combination of rolling farmland and woods along U.S. 340 next to Shipley Elementary School.

It is the site where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson stood in 1862 and surveyed his 14,000 troops before his famous siege and capture of Harpers Ferry. The ensuing battle resulted in the capture of 12,500 Union troops, the largest surrender of Northern soldiers in the conflict.

Park Superintendent Donald Campbell said preservation of School House Ridge is critical given the heightened interest in the Civil War.

Although there are several landowners in the School House Ridge area, Rosa's group is primarily interested in 76 acres known as the Murphy Farm and 283 acres that was owned by Dixie Kilham, a well-known supporter of the arts who died last year. Murphy Farm is the site of a proposed 203-home development.

The plan would not keep the subdivision from being built unless owners of the undeveloped land opt to sell their land to the Park Service.

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