- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

One hundred thirty-seven years to the day that Confederate Gen. George Edward Pickett led his fateful charge toward "hell's half acre" at Gettysburg, the U.S. government won another battle without firing a shot. It blew up an observation tower from which countless visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield viewed the site of the famed three-day battle in 1863.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt cheered the destruction, saying the tower was an eyesore and a distraction to visitors. "This is sacred ground," he said. "Americans come here to learn of their past, to understand how it was in those days when we remade ourselves as a new nation." Once upon a time, private property was considered sacred too, but there doesn't seem to be much room for it in Mr. Babbitt's version of history.
The tower and the land on which it stood used to belong to Baltimore-based Overview Limited Partnership. It was erected on private property, not in Gettysburg National Military Park, and opened in 1974 to serve tourists visiting the area. Many of the 2 million annual visitors, reports the Associated Press, took advantage of the tower to get a panoramic view of the battlefield.
Preservationists pronounced themselves appalled by this tasteless concrete appendage, but what could they do? The tower was on private property. Already the facility had survived a court challenge by the state of Pennsylvania.
What the U.S. government decided to do is what tinhorn dictators do when they want something that doesn't belong to them. It confiscated it; the feds "nationalized" the tower site. First, in 1990, the government stretched the park's boundaries to include the building. In 1999, it set aside funds for the "acquisition" of the site. And it filed suit literally to take it from the owners. At the time the suit was filed, a lawyer for Overview, Irwin Aronson, expressed "joy and satisfaction," saying it would mean his client "will have an opportunity for a full and impartial hearing before an impartial judiciary." In fact, says Mr. Aronson, it turned out there was no hearing. On June 5, U.S. District Judge Sylvia Rambo simply condemned the property and ordered the owners to hand it over to the feds by June 15. So much for due process.
What was the rush? Judge Rambo explained that the federal government had a great offer, albeit a time-sensitive one, to remove the tower at great savings to the taxpayer: If the job could be done by July 3, the demolition contractor would do the job for free, saving taxpayers about $1 million in costs. Yes, the owners stood to lose revenue they would otherwise have received from the continued operation of the tower, but the government was going to take the property sooner or later, the judge said. So, well, it might as well be sooner. And, yes, the roughly 30 Overview employees would lose their jobs, but the government has offered to give them work. Let's see if the feds keep their pledge. If not, there is always unemployment compensation and welfare.
As for compensating the owners for the value of the property itself, that too remains in question. Although the federal government has appraised the property as high as $6.6 million, it placed just $3 million in escrow for the owners. Don't try this at home, businessmen. Only government can get away with a steal like this.
Interestingly, at least one of the supports on which Judge Rambo rested her decision the savings to taxpayers is already in question. In a interview with the Gettysburg Times, the president of the demolition company put the cost of the job at $75,000 to $100,000, a sum rather less than the $1 million the government and Judge Rambo cited. Furthermore, the company has rights to the scrap from the job and has already sold it for $33,000. So the federal government may only have saved taxpayers a little more than $40,000, even if one assumes the tower had to go.
The owners and employees are hardly the only losers here. Local officials estimate that 2 percent of their revenues each year came directly from admissions and real estate taxes collected from tower operations. (That doesn't include taxes paid by the employees.) A businessman who set up a camera that transmitted pictures of the battlefield to a Web site, and the bed-and-breakfast operators and other businesses who advertised on that site, will also suffer.
Nor is the battlefield assured safety from commercial exploitation because of the taking. The same National Park Service that oversees the battlefield has cut a deal with a private developer to build a controversial new visitors center that has outraged preservationists. Judge Rambo herself blasted the agency for "poor taste" in allowing the demolition company to exploit the work "for its own commercial benefit."
But all Americans are losers when the federal government dismisses private property rights as cavalierly as it has in Gettysburg. It raises the stakes of Pickett's charge that much higher and makes one wonder if the union troops who held off the charge realized just what they had "won."

Email: smithk@twtmail.com.

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