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Harpers Ferry hearing set in Charles Town

September 16, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A public hearing was scheduled Thursday to gauge the county's support for a controversial plan to expand the size of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park by up to 1,200 acres.

If past comments about the plan are any indication of what will be discussed at the public hearing, the Jefferson County Commissioners could be in for a long night.

The commissioners agreed to hold the hearing Oct. 19th at 7 p.m. in the county meeting room on West Washington Street.

The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has been interested in expanding its territory to preserve areas such as School House Ridge, a plot along U.S. 340 south of Harpers Ferry where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson stood in 1862 and surveyed his 14,000 troops before his famous siege and capture of Harpers Ferry.

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The ensuing battle resulted in the capture of 12,500 Union troops, the largest surrender of Northern soldiers in the conflict.

The park and other supporters of the expansion said it is important to enlarge the park to protect battlegrounds from development.

But some people who own property in the area are opposed to the expansion.

They worry about park surrounding their land if they don't move, lowering property values.

A handful of Harpers Ferry landowners appeared before the commissioners on Aug. 5 to speak against the plan, and last week the commissioners were presented with a petition signed by 35 residents who are opposed to the expansion.

Some of the commissioners have been uneasy about the plan.

Commissioner James G. Knode said the expansion is contrary to the county's growth plan because the area being considered by the park has been zoned for residential development.

Although the commissioners do not have any part in the park's expansion, they are being asked to pass a resolution in support of the proposal.

Members of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, a land trust that is leading the effort to expand the park, are asking the commissioners to approve the resolution to show U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., that there is local support for the expansion.

The conservancy wants Byrd to sponsor legislation that would increase the size of the park from 2,300 acres to 3,500. If the legislation passes, the next step would be to obtain federal funding to purchase land for the park, according to Paul Rosa, executive director of the conservancy.

Knode said the problem is that the county does not know what kind of federal legislation could be formulated.

Federal officials could study the issue and determine that the whole county should be saved because of its Civil War significance, Knode said.

"You don't know what you're signing onto," Knode said.

The commissioners approved the public hearing on a 3-2 vote.

Commissioners Al Hooper, James K. Ruland and Edgar Ridgeway voted for the hearing, and Knode and Comissioner Dean Hockensmith voted against it.

The commissioners have not approved their resolution, and want to hold the public hearing before taking any action.

The two-paragraph resolution says there is an opportunity for land around the park to be added "by voluntary sale, donation or administrative agency transfer."

"Therefore, be it resolved that the Jefferson County Commission supports the enactment of federal legislation that will allow lands in the immediate vicinity of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park to be voluntarily sold, donated or administratively transferred to the National Park Service," the resolution reads.

No one would be forced to turn over land for the park, Rosa said.

Rosa and Vicki Faulkner, a Harpers Ferry resident in favor of the expansion, attempted to ease some of the fears about the park enlargement.

Faulkner, who is married to Scot Faulkner, president of another land trust organization that has tried to acquire land for the park, said her house is surrounded by the park and its appraised value has increased dramatically.

Faulkner said she is free to use her land as she pleases, adding she has planted gardens and made other improvements to her house.

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