Wanted: Public Input

Wanted: Public Input

National Park Service proposes Web-based system to publicize permit requests in C&O Canal National Historical Park.

When George Lewis used to go on family vacations, his family believed that the man in a flat-brimmed hat at national parks was the most respected person in the world. Now Lewis, a member of the C&O Canal Advisory Commission from Frederick County, feels that the integrity of C&O Canal National Historical Park is at stake.

With Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt attending last week, members of the Advisory Committee voiced outrage over two developments along the lower end of the canal, one of which was the near clear-cutting of trees along Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s property near Swains Lock. Commission members also stressed opposition to a Park Service proposal to cede parkland to Georgetown University to build a boathouse between the canal and the Potomac near the university’s campus.

“Trust in the Park Service … has continued to evaporate,” said Barry A. Passett, an at-large member of the commission.

“It doesn’t seem like anybody’s listening at all,” said Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, commission chair. “The credibility gap is enormous.”

Each year, the park service receives hundreds of special use permit applications. Some of them rise just above the changing-a-light-bulb level, Brandt said. He hopes that a system which publicizes permit applications received by the park will help prevent similar events from happening. Brandt released a draft proposal of a compliance process for C&O Canal National Historical Park.

“I think a lot of the culpability for this lies with the National Park Service,” said Ginny Barnes, past president of West Montgomery County Citizens Association. “We applaud [Brandt] for what he’s trying to do now.”

THE COMPLIANCE process that Brandt proposed was outlined in a 24-step flowchart at the commission’s meeting at Rockwood Manor on Friday, Sept. 9. Under the process, an application for special use permits would undergo an initial review by the National Park Service, then entered into the park service’s Web-based Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) system, which would make the application public and allow for comments and review by the public.

Brandt pointed out that the 184-mile line canal abuts private properties in multiple counties, that maps are often unclear about boundary lines, and that there is a range of local jurisdictions and easements governing each county alongside the federal parkland. Many landowners with property abutting the park are unaware that their land is subject to easements, Brandt said.

“This process is hopefully about as fail-safe as we can make it,” Brandt said.

The policy has already been approved on the national level, Brandt said, but specifics about implementing it haven’t “trickled down” to the level of each national park. “There has not been good guidance about how to proceed with this,” Brandt said. “Just because it’s faithful to our [policy] doesn’t mean it’s simple.”

Implementing the full policy will probably take at least six months, Brandt said.

Barnes said she is confident that neither the Snyder nor the boathouse incident would have occurred if the public had known earlier in the process. “We applaud you for deciding to follow your own policies,” Barnes said, without sarcasm.

Brandt hopes that a system that informs the public earlier and permits public input on park-related permits will satisfy the people and organizations who feel shut out of the process. “Had we had this in place, it might have changed the outcome,” Brandt said.