George Allen's Property Rights Blunder

Most types of congressional pork merely transfer money from the taxpayers to some favored constituency. Other types of pork are more nefarious: They also trample on individuals’ property rights. Regrettably, Sen. George Allen’s (R.-Va.) “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area Act,” which is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf (R.-Va.), is an example of the latter.

The Allen-Wolf initiative seems harmless at first glance, save for the wasteful spending. It appears to only divert federal dollars to a local special-interest group for the stated purpose of promoting heritage tourism, thereby allowing politicians like Allen and Wolf to boast about the project in their stump speeches.

If only it were that simple.

For those who may be unfamilar with them, national heritage areas are federally-designated, heavily-regulated land areas over which special interest groups and federal employees are given special powers and federal resources to help them steer land-use decisions. Property rights frequently are curtailed.

Allen’s bill, which would create a new national heritage area covering large parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, would create a “management entity” for the region comprised of federal employees and preservationist interest groups—many of the latter having a history of anti-property rights agendas. This new management entity would be required to create an “inventory” of all property to be “preserved,” “managed,” or “acquired.” The new management entity would be granted the authority to disburse federal funds to encourage restrictions on local land use and the acquisition of private property.

Citizens of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania might look to property owners caught within the boundaries of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area in Arizona to catch a glimpse of their possible future. A report about the Yuma Heritage area from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources states:

“When the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area was authorized in 2000, the public in Yuma County did not understand the scope of the project and was surprised by the size of the designation… Concerns were raised by citizens about the size of the designation and the potential for additional Federal oversight. The fear of adverse impacts on private property rights were realized when local government agencies began to use the immense heritage area boundary to determine zoning restrictions.”

Considering some of the groups that would round out Sen. Allen’s management entity, property owners caught within the boundaries of “Hallowed Ground” could fare much worse that those in Yuma. One of the groups pushing for the Allen bill is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose senior vice-president, Peter Brink, currently serves as vice-chairman of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership. The Partnership would join the federal government in managing the Heritage Area, should Allen’s bill become law. The National Trust is an organization with a clear record of hostility toward property rights. For example, last year a Louisa, Va., man who wanted to renovate his home ran into opposition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Emily Wadhams, a National Trust vice president, argued against the rights of the homeowner in a hearing on Capitol Hill, declaring, “[P]rivate property rights have never been allowed to take precedence over our shared national values and the preservation of our country’s heritage.”

It is curious that an organization claiming to be a guardian of history would so casually revise it.

The National Trust also has worked to defeat state ballot initiatives designed to restore the private property rights of landowners. Recently in Oregon, the National Trust and various environmental groups fought passage of a measure that would fairly compensate property owners when government takes their property rights and devalues their land. In 1995, the group helped bankroll the opposition to a similar property rights referendum in the state of Washington.

Last year’s unpopular U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London sparked a national outcry for stronger protections for property owners—not for more legislation that further tramples property rights. The uproar over the “bridge to nowhere” shows that many taxpayers are fed up about funding pork. Unfortunately for property owners within the proposed Hallowed Ground Heritage Area, some members of Congress still have not gotten the message.

Sen. Allen has always been quick to invoke the names of Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan when describing his political philosophy. Yet Jeffersonian principles and Reagan-era conservatism do not allow for federal boondoggles like his National Heritage Area.