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Battle Brewing Over Plans to Develop Harpers Ferry

Associated Press

A new battle is brewing at the site of one of the South’s greatest victories in the Civil War, this time pitting federal historians trying to preserve the battlefield against local officials who want to make the land available for commercial development.

The conflict centers on the battlefield where Gen. Stonewall Jackson led 14,000 Confederate troops in a three-day siege in 1862, eventually forcing the 12,500-man Union army to give up, the North’s largest surrender of the war.

The battleground’s location along a highway just outside Harpers Ferry National Historical Park makes it ideal for development. Harpers Ferry is at the easternmost tip of West Virginia, an hour’s drive from the Washington metropolitan area and its booming real-estate market.

National Park Service officials, however, want to preserve the battlefield as it was during the Civil War.

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“It all happened right there,” said Donald Campbell, Harpers Ferry national park supervisor. “It’s a highly significant piece of American history--it’s certainly the most important battlefield in the state of West Virginia.

‘Inappropriate’ Idea

“It’s just inappropriate to go in there and start digging with bulldozers. Young soldiers fought and died for their country on that land.”

The Jefferson County Commission, however, recently zoned the privately owned land for high-density housing. Commission President Garland Moore said the panel did not see any reason to hold back the land.

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“The federal and the state governments own a large hunk of Jefferson County already,” Moore said. “You can’t keep taking land off the tax books and expect to survive.

“There was a lot of Civil War activity in Jefferson County. If we set aside every piece of land in Jefferson County that Civil War troops fought on, we wouldn’t have anything left.”

The park service cannot control land outside its jurisdiction and therefore must appeal to the county and state governments to fight development, Campbell said.

‘Up to the People’

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“Preserving anything is up to the people,” Campbell said. “If the people want it preserved, history will be preserved. If they don’t, history will be lost. We can only raise the issue.”

The dispute at Harpers Ferry is not the only battle over development at a Civil War site around Washington. Plans to construct a shopping mall outside the Manassas Battlefield National Park in northern Virginia, site of two important battles, have drawn strong opposition.

Moore said the commission’s zoning ruling on the Harpers Ferry site is not necessarily permanent. “We’re certainly willing to listen,” he said.

The park service and the Harpers Ferry town government have already enacted easements sharply restricting construction in sight of the historic town, where abolitionist John Brown conducted his infamous raid in 1859 when West Virginia was still part of Virginia. The town, much of it preserved in pre-Civil War condition, is one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

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