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Canal families fight to save homes

November 13, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

WILLIAMSPORT - George "Sonny" Stumbaugh is ready for a fight, but it may be a losing battle.

The longtime Williamsport resident and businessman faces the loss of his C&O Canal vacation home due to a federal land acquisitions deal to which he said he agreed in 1974 only under threat of condemnation.

Stumbaugh joined fellow canal tenant D. Blaine Weaver, president of Save the C&O Canal Families from the Park Service, at Williamsport Town Hall recently to discuss their options.

It's a case of the "big fellow" against the "little fellow," Weaver said.

The little fellows say they stand little chance.

"We bought the property and we're removing them," said Douglas Faris, superintendent at C&O Canal National Historical Park. "There really is no way we can re-negotiate them."

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Some 1,100 people sold their property to the National Park Service in the 1970s to help create the C&O Canal National Historical Park. More than 200 properties were acquired with reserved rights of use and occupancy, according to information from the C&O Canal National Historical Park headquarters.

The purpose of this land acquisition was to return the "cultural and natural landscape" in the park to conditions that existed before 1924, and to lessen the potential for flood damage and flood debris, according to the park service documents.

Those 200 canal homeowners signed "use and occupancy permits" that allowed them use of the properties for up to 25 years, Faris said. The sellers paid for the right of continued use at a rate of 1 percent of the purchase price for each year of continued occupancy, Faris said.

Twenty-five of those permits remain active, and the last permits expire in June 2001, Faris said in October.

Options evaluated

"We're moving forward with the removal of development as they expire. We've evaluated all of our options," said Faris, who added that he understands the retention users' "emotional attachment" to the properties but he has a responsibility to uphold the legal arrangements.Stumbaugh's use and occupancy permit on the five-room, two-story home he built in 1967 on land 75 feet from the canal flood plain at Galloway's Bluff above Dam No. 4 ends in September 2000, he said.

Weaver's permit on the cottage he's owned at Galloway's Bluff since 1974 expires in November 2000, he said.

These structures are not the "fishing shacks" threatened by floods as the park service has claimed, but attractive, amenity-filled homes with landscaped yards, Stumbaugh said.

He and Weaver are among signers who said they agreed to sell only under threat of condemnation and with the verbal agreement that the use and occupancy permits could be further extended.

It is "normal and common" for the NPS to have imminent domain rights and to use the right of condemnation as a "last resort" for land acquisition and to clear land titles, Faris said. The right of condemnation is provided by Congress, he added.

Some use and occupancy permits of shorter duration than the 25-year maximum were extended in the 1980s, Faris said.

No more permits

The park service also considered allowing extensions through "special use permits," but the solicitor for the Department of the Interior in 1994 directed the NPS to discontinue the use of special use permits to extend use and occupancy agreements, Faris said.

The park service now has "no legal authority" to extend the permits, he said.

Stumbaugh said some canal property owners were also granted scenic easements, but that opportunity wasn't presented to most of the canal homeowners.

Faris said the park service bought a number of properties with scenic easements when there was a "clear and definable benefit to the park and the federal government."

The park service's intent was to keep development from encroaching on the park and to perpetuate the agricultural scene, he said.

Some properties with historic value were also bought with scenic easements, Faris said.

Though Stumbaugh said the NPS "made favors because of political clout or money," Faris said he saw "nothing that would lead me to believe that is accurate."

The park superintendent said property owners in the 1970s were given fair time to negotiate and fair market value for their properties.

Tactics criticized

Stumbaugh said he negotiated with the NPS for almost six months, then was given 15 days to come to terms or be faced with condemnation proceedings.

From a mountain of paperwork dating back 25 years, he and Weaver pulled letters from canal homeowners who claimed that they, too, were strong-armed into selling.

A Feb. 21, 1975, letter to Stumbaugh from the U.S. Department of the Interior states that the Stumbaughs sold their tract of land "to the United States under threat of condemnation, and that said sale is therefore an involuntary conversion of said property."

Stumbaugh and Weaver said they want the opportunity to buy back their properties and grant the park service scenic easements.

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