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The great national land grab

By Peyton Knight
web posted June 16, 2003

Land grabbers in Congress, led by Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), want to pass federal legislation (H.R. 1427) to create a National Heritage Areas program. Property rights advocates must be on the alert and prepared to fight to ensure that such a program never comes into existence.

National Heritage Areas present many dangers to traditional property rights and local zoning. Here are a few of the more serious implications and problems associated with an NHA program:

  • National Heritage Areas are de facto federal zoning. Despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, as federal dollars flow from Washington to individual NHAs, inevitably, federal strings are attached. One of these strings is federal zoning mandates. For example, when the Augusta Canal NHA was undergoing initial approval, the National Park Service urged the House Resources Committee to withhold federal funds from Augusta Canal until a commitment was shown by those overseeing the creation of the NHA to implement stricter zoning laws and even create a State park. Land use and zoning is an inherent function of local government. NHAs promote a top-down, federal approach to land use that would spell disaster for local communities.
  • National Heritage Areas stifle local initiative and control. When born of local initiative, planning and money, Heritage Areas are more apt to have the consensus of the property and business owners within their boundaries. Indeed, there are many State Heritage Areas that are totally sustained by local businesses and governments—they operate free of federal money or intrusion. National Heritage Areas operate quite differently. It is not necessarily the desire of the local community to create a NHA in their area, but rather the desire of a special interest group or a federal agency. Preliminary boundaries are drawn, locals are inadequately informed of the pending NHA designation, federal money and assistance is wafted under the noses of local officials, and the process goes forward, despite what is in the best interest or desire of the community.
  • Property owners are not properly notified when their land falls within the boundaries of a proposed National Heritage Area. It is morally imperative that landowners be notified any time a federal designation could affect their property rights in any manner. Yet proponents of National Heritage Areas refuse to offer this most common courtesy. This is because they fear opposition to NHA designations and would rather spring the news on unsuspecting landowners.
  • National Heritage Areas not only promote federal land acquisition, but also acquire land themselves. Both the Cane River and Shenandoah National Battlefields National Heritage Areas are authorized to use federal funds for land acquisition, and thus, have created national parks within their boundaries. Others, such as the Rivers of Steel NHA in Pennsylvania, are openly lobbying for land acquisition and park creation. Property owners within these NHAs must now contend with ideologically driven land trusts partnered with federal agencies hungry to either acquire their land or restrict its use.
  • A National Heritage Areas program would grow exponentially and become a massive funding burden to the federal government. A National Heritage Areas program could not come at a worse time. Once a National Heritage Area program is established, local government officials and non-governmental organizations will clamor for more and more federal dollars. As the program grows out of control, so too will its strain on the federal budget and its burden on a National Park Service that is already facing a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog.

The National Heritage Areas program is an expensive, insidious attempt by non-governmental organizations and federal agencies to impose land use controls and zoning mandates on unsuspecting local communities. It is my view, and the view of others in the property rights community, that there is zero justification for such a program at the federal level. The Senate Resources Committee has a golden opportunity to quash this dangerous program before it spreads like wildfire throughout the nation, devouring local communities.

Peyton Knight is the Director of Legislative Affairs for the American Policy Center, a grassroots, activist think tank headquartered in Warrenton, VA. The Center maintains an Internet site at www.americanpolicy.org. © Peyton Knight, 2003.

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