Battlefield advance concerns neighbors

Plans to expand the historic district around Manassas National Battlefield Park are bringing jitters to nearby resident John Harrison.

The 30-year-old Prince William County man and his wife Michelle, 29, who live on General Longstreet Line, worry that a larger historic district might someday be expanded into new park land and threaten their home — despite reassurances from the National Park Service that the historic distinction would have no impact on current development.

The Harrisons know it wouldn’t be the first time the battlefield park has expanded in recent years. In 1988, Congress added nearby Stuart’s Hill to the battlefield to prevent the construction of a shopping mall on the site.

“I think people around here are worried about what (the National Park Service is) really going to do,” John Harrison said. “But it’ll probably be years before we’re affected.”

In what could be the opening shots of yet another political fight over the national park created to remember two Civil War battles fought 140 years ago, property owners and county supervisors are beginning to ask questions on what the district expansion means.

The National Park Service wants to expand the historic district’s boundaries, set in 1981, to the north and west, including Second Battle of Manassas events now excluded. It’s all part of federal requirements to update tracking of historic resources, said county planner Debrarae Karnes.

Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn, I-Gainesville, says the process is unfair because property owners are being asked to opt out by majority vote, when membership in the district should instead be voluntary for each individual.

For Wilbourn, the proposed changes to the district make little sense. After the Marriott Corp. failed to get a Great America Theme Park built near the battlefield in the 1970s, it offered land for free, but the Department of the Interior found it not worth the upkeep. The areas northwest of park were where reserve forces and calvary were held, but no significant portion of the battle was fought there, he says.

“A signal man was on a mountain in a lot of battles. But you don’t go around marking all the mountains as historic. There was a forced march from Winchester. Should we mark the entire distance as historic?” he asked at a Board of County Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at-large, said the difference is the park is not looking to acquire land. This review is just to identify period structures and resources, he said.

But Wilbourn said this could be used a first step to blocking a battlefield bypass road that Sudley Mountain Estates residents are already opposing.

Any roads built in the area would require studies of historic impact, so this process will speed future studies for roads rather than delay them, Connaughton said.

Wilbourn countered that maybe the studies will be quicker but the reality is the construction is the longer process and these historic designations will complicate construction.

Properties included in the historic district will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

“I think a lot of the people are concerned about what this means for their properties,” said Carolyn Ingersoll, who owns land near the park in Fairfax. “They’re worried that once they get the historic district designated, it’ll produce local ordinances that will affect their properties.”

Prince William County’s Architectural Review Board enforces historic preservation regulations in a few places in the county, but none near the battlefield.

Karnes believes it’s unlikely that the federal district will lead to a local district with tighter controls. “It would require tremendous support for it to become a local historic district,” she said.

These are the kinds of answer the public needs, said Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs, R-Occoquan, questioning county and state staff at the board meeting. She said property owners just want to know what is next after the district is changed.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is reviewing the National Park Service’s proposal.

Historic Resources Information Division Director Catherine Slusser said the district will allow property owners to get tax credits if they want to rehabilitate historic structures. It’s main function is as a planning tool, she said.

The district will give not right of access to land nor impose restrictions on property owners, according to a letter sent to all affected property owners.

“Listing on the national and state registers is an honorary designation. For an affected property, listing on the registers confers recognition of historical significance only … the designation also does not alter the legislative boundaries of the national battlefield park,” Park Superintendent Robert Sutton wrote in the letter.