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State, federal officials forming the future of Fort Monroe
By Kate Wiltrout
Transferring ownership of an Army fort is a complex task, especially when the place boasts as much history – and as much valuable real estate – as Fort Monroe.
Almost three years after the federal government announced that the Army would exit Fort Monroe, state and federal officials are beginning to hammer out specifics.
They aim to sign an agreement by August that would specify how the 570-acre peninsula will be managed after 2011.
A draft of the agreement released this week is 45 pages long. Kathleen Kilpatrick, the state historic preservation officer, warned that it’s only going to get longer.
Kilpatrick is one of the state officials most closely involved in the transfer. The bulk of the property would revert to state control when the Army moves its personnel to Fort Eustis and Fort Knox, Ky.
The agreement will be revised to reflect public input and comments from more than 30 “consulting parties” involved in the process, Kilpatrick said. But she emphasized that the principles at its core are sound and won’t change.
“It’s a very strong agreement,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s very preservation-friendly, while recognizing that preservation depends on creating economic sustainability to support your culture.”
The three guiding principles are to respect the fort’s historic assets, provide public access and cover the cost of running what’s essentially a small town.
The agreement divides the fort into five zones, each with its own rules for demolishing buildings and constructing new ones. The strictest rules would apply to everything within the moat-encircled stone fort built in the 1830s.
Development at the grassy, eastern end of the base would be permitted, if it maintained the same scale, density and characteristics as its surroundings. Beyond that, the agreement states that the Army would facilitate negotiations for a long-term loan of the collections at the Casemate Museum. The museum, built inside the cavernous stone halls of the fort, preserves the cell where Confederate President Jefferson Davis spent months in captivity after his capture at the end of the Civil War.
Another facet of the fort’s history is its role in the crumbling of slavery. The Union general in charge during the Civil War decreed that escaped slaves be considered contraband of war, and granted them freedom inside the fort. As part of the agreement, the Army would do more archaeological testing in search of the Freedmen’s Cemetery rumored to have existed on base.
H.O. Malone, a retired Army historian who heads Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, doesn’t disagree that finding revenue to support it is crucial to the fort’s future.
But he doesn’t like how fast the agreement is coming together. He thinks the Army and state officials should focus instead on exactly who gets jurisdiction after the Army leaves.
“They’re putting the cart before the horse,” he said.