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Heritage designation a chance to cash in on our empty ground

October 23, 2005|By Tim Rowland

A key to Gen. Robert E. Lee's success was his preoccupation with the ground. At Antietam, where nothing else was to his advantage and the Potomac was to his back with only one nearby ford, his strategic choice of ground - along with a little help from A.P. Hill, saved what should have been a Union rout.

High or low, open or wooded, Lee was keenly aware of the value of property.

Today, the life-and-death aspects of land choices are fortunately reduced, although the debate remains hot. I can only imagine that developers, seeing as how it's their job, must look out over an unoccupied piece of ground and think, "What a waste."

With development comes profit, commerce and tax revenues. If you're selling a product locally, that means there will be more people to buy it. If you own a company it offers a greater potential work force from which to draw. It's all part of the economic machine that makes America work.

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Would an empty field have all that value, or indeed, any value at all? New reports say yes. It may even have more.

Quoted in the Washington Post this month, Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, pointed to a report that indicates battlefields can be just as stimulating, economically speaking, as houses and shopping centers.

All three Tri-State jurisdictions are wrestling with Civil War-related issues at the moment. Outside of Shepherdstown, W.Va., there's a push for new National Park land on the same land where a housing development has also been proposed. In Gettysburg, Pa., there's a proposal for a casino to be situated a mere minie-ball's shot from the historic battlefield. In Hagerstown, there's once again talk of a Civil War museum downtown, to try to draw some of the thousands of visitors to Antietam into the city.

And now, to up the ante, comes the proposal to elevate several towns - including Hagerstown, Boonsboro and Williamsport - to the status of a "Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area." If all goes as proposed, the towns would become eligible for state grants, loans and tax credits to encourage more tourist-friendly confines featuring more restaurants, shops and showier streetscapes.

Tying in with Lightizer's point, our area is a candidate for such largesse because it has remained rural. And rural has value.

Specifically, the Heart of the Civil War report states, "this region along the border between North and South possesses a degree of landscape integrity that is exceptional among Civil War sites around the country. The visitor who wants to understand what it was like when the armies faced each other can do so here in a setting that remains largely rural and relatively intact, unlike many other Civil War battlefields where modern development patterns have obscured the experience."

You can say that much of this "integrity" is accidental integrity because we're further from the cities and have never had to withstand the bombardment of sprawl as, say Manassas has had to cope with. But the point remains, we still have a chance to preserve, and profit from, our open fields.

In this respect, it can be argued that the county's farmers contribute more to the local economy than the sum value of their farm products. This puts compensation for farmland preservation in a new light, and should make local governments more willing to spend more on compensation for farmers.

The Heart of the Civil War study projects that if the heritage area comes to pass, Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties would benefit to the tune of 65,000 new visitors and $9 million in new revenues. If the men and women who have struggled mightily to till the fields shun development have directly contributed to our "heritage" status, then it seems to me a share of tourism-generated revenues should go back to the farmers for preservation.

The report even notes that open lands are becoming more important in recruitment of companies, for which quality of life is becoming an ever higher priority. Open farmland as an economic development tool may seem paradoxical, but it makes sense in a county where plenty of people find green fields, reasonable housing costs and fresh air a salve worthy of a two-hour commute every day. Businesses will realize that employees put a premium on this lifestyle, and eventually they will follow.

Thankfully, the report is realistic about development: "Ensuring that visitors have an authentic and unique experience requires conserving the integrity of the heritage area's cultural landscape to the greatest degree possible while still accommodating regional growth."

Any viable stab at preservation will require compromise, and a respect for private property. We've learned that those who advocate zero-growth are doomed to fail, and stir up a lot of anger in the process.

But the underlying message of the report - our open lands are valuable and we need to think before we develop, not develop before we think. Clearly from the comprehensive scope of the report itself (this is not your father's consultant study) a tremendous amount of thought and effort is going into the Civil War heritage area. And apparently there's money to back it up.

It is gratifying that Washington County has been chosen as one of the heritage-area's keystones. But Hagerstown has often been slow to come to the party, spending agonizing amounts of time inspecting the gift-horse's maw. It should be the duty of every member of influence in the community to read the report and become involved, before this train of rural celebration leaves for some other station.

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