Heritage Areas

November 24, 2007 Economics, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 1144

The AP posted a story today about heritage areas, because Congress approved ten last year, bringing the total to 37 with six more on the way. I was fortunate enough to get my career started working on the very first, the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor and I was in the room when President Reagan signed it into law in August 1984. The picture is the Gaylord Building in the heart of the I & M Canal at Lockport, where I still serve as Chair of the Site Council.

So anyway, I have some experience in this business. The necessarily condensed article from the Associated Press is quite good, although it is always intriguing to see how “news” is made. The curiosity here is the conflict, which every good story needs, but is hard to come by in something as broad-based as heritage areas. Still, thanks to some “budget hawks and property-rights advocates” a record number of “no” votes were recorded on the latest round of heritage areas.

Which is funny, because heritage areas were designed by Republican budget hawks and corporate CEOs to avoid federal land ownership and regulation. These were Reagan-era national parks, devoid of any new environmental or preservation laws, abstaining from any federal control and costing less than last Tuesday’s lunchtime in Baghdad. The first one was promoted by chemical and mining companies and arch-conservatives like Tom Corcoran and Henry Hyde. Funny, some woman named Corcoran is now fighting a heritage area in Maryland, calling it a back door to federal land-use planning that will pressure local governments to plan land use around heritage preservation.

Well, yeah, but so what? What should they plan it around, shopping malls? The Corcoran woman argued for bad taste and talked about public money “so that some elitist can go on a historic tour?”

Well, thank god we have normal people who avoid history. God forbid you should have your region designated a heritage area and allow the average person to appreciate history or become concerned about land use decisions. Unless they are a college-educated property-rights advocate posing as a populist. Then it is okay to have an opinion on land use decisions. Why is telling your neighbor they can’t have a heritage area any different from your neighbor telling you they can? Fact is, every land use regulation since the beginning is arguably an “owner’s club” designed to exclude something or someone that is undesirable. That is why one of the most conservative Supreme Courts found zoning legal in 1926, and a pretty damn conservative one pissed off the left and the right by supporting eminent domain two years ago.

I get the property-rights impulse, or motivation. But they have no logic and even less history. I suppose they would say they prefer land use to be set by the free market, which is something like a first principle. Except for the annoying historical fact that when it comes to land use THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A FREE MARKET ANYWHERE. Ever. Land prices doubled in Chicago overnight in the 1830s thanks to PUBLIC WORKS, and every bit of sprawl speculation and shopping mall development was subsidized by federal and state highways AND STILL IS.

The budget hawks are the ultimate straw man. Eliminate all of the heritage areas and you save enough for what – another 9 hours in Baghdad? another 12 miles of highway on the Great Plains or perhaps 2 miles in the Rockies? One tank? Even the hungriest budget hawk can’t have eyes good enough to see such tiny prey.

But then again, when your principles have been bankrupted you gotta find straw men and tiny prey because on your side of the aisle there aren’t any hawks at all, really.

If you go to the Joliet Arsenal, land taken from farmers by the federal government in the last century for munitions and then given back to the public under the rubric of a heritage area, you will find the butcher bird. It pretends to be a hawk or a bird of prey, but it does not have the tools. So it picks up voles and mice and spears them on Osage orange and other prickly trees because it has neither the talons nor the beak for the job. Just like the pretend budget hawks.

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