Over the past few months, as momentum for an eminent domain condemnation of private land at the Flight 93 Memorial was building, reporters, friends and land use professionals have asked me whether I think that condemnation is fair.
After all, conservatives typically reject eminent domain for all but the most publicly necessary properties and projects, like roads and airports. Do these lands at the crash site rise to that level of importance; do they meet that high standard?
My answer is an unequivocal "yes." With such a clear importance to the nation, and the lack of progress in negotiations with the landowners, these properties must, unfortunately, be condemned in order to be protected. Long efforts to reach amicable settlements, far above fair market value, have broken down. An impasse is no longer acceptable.
My role with the Flight 93 crash site and resulting memorial was influential in terms of which properties were sought or acquired for the U.S. National Park Service to date, and for the establishment of the boundary, which drives the NPS' actions now. I speak on this subject with knowledge and passion.
In late October 2001, I was asked by the NPS to attend a tour of the crash site with the goal of assessing what to do with it from the land protection perspective. From that moment until October 2003, I spent a good part of each week working on landowner outreach at and around the crash site, negotiating for land purchases there, determining which properties should be acquired outright and which should be conserved with conservation easements. Those activities de facto set the boundary of what would later become the memorial.
The criteria I used for selecting properties and reaching out to landowners were defined by the viewshed around the site, and the ability of future generations of Americans to see the "battlefield" as it was the day that the battle happened. The viewshed is that area seen when standing in and around the impact area, and it has to be protected in order to insure that this hallowed ground is not eroded by development that is either out of character with the area or that is tastelessly commercial. I have successfully led such efforts at Gettysburg National Battlefield, and it seems that the public takes this complicated, painstaking outcome for granted.
Reading the May 8 Associated Press article on the Flight 93 Memorial was surprising to me. My crystal clear recollection is that landowner Tim Lambert had been cooperative, even pledging to donate his six acres at Ground Zero. I even conducted an expensive and detailed analysis (paid for by Randy Cooley at the Westsylvania Heritage Corp.) of his subsurface coal values, to ensure that he received full value for his land. Seeing Tim's land now slated for eminent domain is painful to me, because it means that somewhere things have broken down with an otherwise supportive and amenable landowner.
Every other landowner within the crash site viewshed has been negotiated with, as well; no stone has gone unturned. On Sept. 11, 2003, at a private memorial service at the crash site, I approached former Gov. Tom Ridge and asked him to consider intervening in the land negotiations.
When he understood that some landowners were gaming the negotiations and dragging them out, apparently in search of payment many times above the property's fair market value, he became visibly upset. An outstanding peacemaker, Ridge was never called upon to intervene, but I have no doubt he would have cajoled landowners to do what is right for the nation.
And that is what this comes down to: What is right and necessary for an entire nation versus the exceptional personal interests of a few. Pennsylvanians are an independent bunch, thank God, but their patience has limits.
It is time for that hallowed ground to be memorialized, and for people who profess love of country to act like true patriots. Or else the unwelcome but inevitable spectacle of condemnation will be played out, to everyone's loss.
Josh First is president & CEO of Appalachian Land & Conservation Services and is writing a book on his experience protecting the Flight 93 crash site.