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Panel votes to seek national park status for Fort Monroe
By Kate Wiltrout
Welcome to Fort Monroe National Park*
That's what the signs welcoming visitors to this historic waterfront property might say if officials overseeing the site's transfer from Army to state control get their wish.
The asterisk would note that the park service doesn't manage all 565 acres of the place; large swaths would be under the control of the Fort Monroe Authority, a state-run entity that hopes to lease almost 2 million square feet of residential, industrial and commercial property.
But potential visitors don't need to know or understand that distinction. The authority's biggest priority is getting people to visit the Hampton landmark after the Army leaves in September. On Thursday, its 11-member board voted unanimously to seek national park status for the entire peninsula on which the fort stands.
"This would give it the proper attention and status it deserves," Hampton Mayor Molly Ward told fellow board members.
Ward led a subcommittee that examined national park possibilities for the fort, meeting with Jonathan Jarvis, director of the park service, and state and local politicians. The authority has long advocated for a National Park Service presence at Fort Monroe - especially inside the moated stone fort, which played a pivotal role during the Civil War - but until recently, board members seemed to support a limited federal role.
In 2005, Fort Monroe was included on a list of military bases across the United States that would be closed to save money.
At the time, residents and politicians decried the announcement, noting that thousands of Army jobs would migrate elsewhere and the city or state would be responsible for maintaining the fort's 170 historic buildings.
Since then - most notably, in the past six months - board members have adopted a grander vision for Fort Monroe, one conceivably more attractive than a strictly controlled Army installation.
Now, they envision a hybridized national park that could attract history tourists flocking to nearby Jamestown, Williamsburg and York-town. And they imagine local residents enjoying more than three miles of bayfront beaches and 200 acres of natural habitat.
As part of the asterisk, the authority would strictly control development at the fort, which the Army began building in 1819. Some sections of the property's footprint would be off-limits for construction; certain parts could see development under certain conditions. Much of the open space would remain that way for public recreation.
The board endorsed including Dog Beach, at the fort's northern end, in the property under federal control. It also agreed to transfer the open space that's now an airfield to the park service.
Perhaps the biggest change involves the strip of land between Bay Breeze Community Center and Battery DeRussy, an early 20th-century coastal gun battery facing the Chesapeake Bay.
The authority agreed it would manage that land and use it only for tourism and hospitality purposes - not new residential or commercial developments, as some feared.
Mark Perreault, president of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, said he remains concerned about how that strip of land will be used.
"We're still going to be working to make sure whatever happens here is an asset, not a drawback," Perreault said Friday.
But overall, he's thrilled that the authority shares his group's vision for a larger park.
There is still much work to be done. National parks can be created two ways: by a vote of Congress or the designation of the president.
Perreault's group and the National Parks Conservation Association are optimistic that Congress will vote this year to make it a national park.
Alan Spears, who works on legislative issues for the conservation association, said the idea has broad bipartisan support among local elected officials - notable at a time of increasing divisions between Democrats and Republicans in Washington.
Spears thinks Fort Monroe fits into the park service's goal to provide parks and programs for a 21st-century constituency, which includes more and more city dwellers. Its significance as "Freedom's Fortress," a Civil War destination for escaped slaves who flocked to Union lines, would help the park service attract a culturally diverse crowd. And, he said, it would create more public land along the Bay, a goal of President Barack Obama.
Destry Jarvis - brother of the park service director and a consultant to the National Parks Conservation Association - told the board he's never seen such a strong candidate for a national park, with united community and political support.
"You've got what it takes," Jarvis said. "This is the next great urban park in America."
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, email@example.com