Open Space

Open Space at Fort Monroe

All of Old Point Comfort, the spit of land that Fort Monroe occupies, was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1960, and for a very good reason: the land itself has been of strategic importance since the earliest days of the Colonial period.  Beginning in 1609, forts have been built on it because of its location at the juncture of Chesapeake Bay and the waters of Hampton Roads that lead inland (see the military history section for more detail).  Therefore the land is as deserving of protection as the historic structures on it.  But land preservation is important for other reasons too.  These include natural beauty, recreational resources, visual contexts for historic buildings, and public access to the Chesapeake Bay, all of which are essential to the creation of a grand public place at Fort Monroe.  They also include economic considerations:  the prospect of sea-level rise makes new development unwise, and metropolitan park spaces with shorelines draw not only tourists but businesses seeking an area with a high quality of life.

CFMNP, working with a number of preservation and conservation organizations, and in cooperation with many Virginia political leaders from the governor to the Congressional and state delegations to the mayor of Hampton, lobbied successfully to have about 325 acres of Fort Monroe in fee and easement designated a National Monument–that is, set aside by the federal government for public use.  On Nov. 1, 2011, President Barrack Obama made the designation, and the acreage now under the management of the National Park Service will be preserved for future generations.  However, the public use of the property still owned by Virginia remains problematic.

The material below offers commentary and discussion on the land-oriented issues concerning Virginia’s property on Fort Monroe.

Table of Contents:

  1. General Statement of CFMNP with regard to Fort Monroe’s historic and natural resources. 
  2. The Wherry Quarter: the key area of concern in preserving the natural environment of Fort Monroe; the Wherry quarter and flooding. 
  3. Significance of Fort Monroe’s natural resources to the Chesapeake Bay; the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order.
  4. Economic significance of Fort Monroe’s open space.
  5. The importance of the natural context of historic architecture.

1. General Statement of CFMNP with regard to Fort Monroe’s historic and natural resources

Text by Mark Perreault, President of CFMNP

Fort Monroe, all 565 acres, is a spectacular place, of national and international significance, from a multifaceted historical standpoint, including Colonial history, military history from several conflicts, most notably the Civil War, and especially the Freedom Story.  Its geography and natural resources, including its miles of Chesapeake Bay waterfront, are also an essential part of its appeal.  Physically, the entire 565-acre National Historical Landmark is vital.  We have much to gain by integrating the National Monument and Commonwealth areas into a 565-acre jewel combining historic architecture, open space, and landscapes, right in heart of Hampton Roads.

The state’s current plan and structure for the Commonwealth areas reflects to a degree the public will and the desire for a high vision for Fort Monroe as a self-sustaining grand public place for the American people.  Many people will live there, many businesses will operate there, but these activities must support and enhance, not detract from or interfere with achieving the potential for this great property.

Hampton Roads has certain strengths and weaknesses. One weakness is that it is not, at least in its core, a very green metropolitan region. We lack great parks, especially on our waterfront.  The Trust for Public Land has studied our region and found our core cities compare badly with other bayfront metro regions in terms of public open space, overall and particularly along our waterfront. Other regions have used the opportunity of closed military bases (e.g. Presidio) to enhance their public lands. We submit that maximizing open space at Fort Monroe, and linking open spaces directly to amenity-filled historic areas, will markedly enhance Hampton Roads appeal and assist with the effort to raise Hampton Roads profile to that of one of America’s recognized great urban areas.

Economic sustainability of Fort Monroe has been a hallmark of our group’s effort since beginning. We support the reuse of Fort Monroe’s historic buildings for revenue producing activities, business and residential, so long as the activities are not incompatible with achieving Fort Monroe’s potential. We support limited new construction, as necessary to achieving economic sustainability, for example, in North Gate area (but not in Wherry Quarter), but we do not support over-development, i.e., construction designed simply to increase activity for activity’s sake. We do not support land sales, as individual ownership of land will not permit the long-term unified public management needed to keep Fort Monroe truly public and special. We believe that economic sustainability can be obtained through a combination of long-term leases of existing buildings (including maintenance obligation going to lessees), short term leases in the initial years, limited land leases for new construction, tourism and other visitor revenues, very limited state funding and the strong National Park Service presence to pull NPS and other federal funding to Fort Monroe.

The City of Hampton’s interests are best served by the grand public place with a significant national park unit that we envision.  Hampton would of course realize the real estate tax revenues from buildings under long-term lease, and its share of sales tax revenues from business activities on Fort Monroe. More importantly, Hampton would realize the tremendous economic and quality of life benefits that would accrue to it as the gateway city to a national and international treasure.

The bottom line is that we have once in a lifetime opportunity to take this treasure and work to achieve its potential. Fort Monroe is not a business problem to be solved in the easiest and most certain way – it is an opportunity to create something special and timeless. We will all be judged on what we do with this opportunity. One way or the other, this is our legacy.

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2. The Wherry Quarter: The key area of concern in preserving the natural environment of Fort Monroe

Text by Mark Perreault, President of CFMNP

The key area of concern is the “Wherry Quarter.” This endangered green heart of Fort Monroe is the 100+ acres lying between the historic areas and the 196 green acres and is currently populated not only by the 1950’s Wherry Housing but also by non-descript post-World War II construction of no long-term value like the Post Exchange, the bowling alley, and the like.  This area is currently designated as “Undetermined” in future use in the reuse plan. We have no problem with this land being temporarily used to develop revenue to get Fort Monroe through the early transition years (e.g., by renting Wherry apartments), but believe the preponderance of it should be designated as open space for the medium to long term.

For Fort Monroe to be the “Grand Public Place” it should be, we believe the Wherry property is critical.  The public needs to view the 570 acres as one place, connected and whole, and it needs as much green space as possible, with trails leading directly to and from the architecturally historic area to open space, forest, wetlands, beaches, dunes, etc. Significant building on the Endangered Green Heart will create a barrier between the natural areas and the historic areas, and prevent the place from feeling and functioning as a unified, high quality whole.

Despite what some have said, we do not need to develop the Wherry Quarter for Fort Monroe to be economically self-sustaining.  And the best use of this property is not as the site of large-scale tourist facilities.  The historic buildings, the North Gate area, and careful infill in historic areas are better places for tourist-oriented development, with perhaps a very few compact and very skillfully designed and located facilities ultimately placed in a largely green Wherry Quarter, if the case for them could be made.

A Trust for Public Land study of public open space in core Hampton Roads compared our core region to New York, Boston and San Francisco Bay cities.  It concluded our core region is, comparably, sadly lacking in public open space, especially along waterfront, and that Fort Monroe is a key (last?) opportunity to do something about this deficit. See “Trust for Public Land Study” on separate page of this website.

The Wherry Quarter and flooding

Comments by Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch

In answer to a question about the wisdom of new development at Fort Monroe, given the threats of sea-level rise and flooding (from national PBS radio program On Point, December 1, 2010: “Rising Seas, Climate Change & the Virginia Coast”), Mr. Stiles said:

If you wanted another snapshot of sea-level rise and decisions being made, that’s it. I mean, it’s a fort with a barrier island. Couple of feet of sea-level rise with a storm surge and you can’t get to it.  So from our perspective it doesn’t make much sense to put anything out there that’s going to last very long. The best use for that would be a park, an open land. If you do a life-cycle cost on that decision, you know, what is the cost going to be to maintain those houses out there for the life of a house is 70 to 100 years, it just doesn’t pencil out.  And then you add to it the potential for risk to the people living out there.  I mean this is a classic case of where our state and federal policies and programs are not aligned with sea-level rise.  They’re all retrospective.  You set a 100-year flood plain based on what the flooding has been, and for us the future’s no longer what it once was, you know.  I mean, we’re not going to get that same level flooding.  So in decisions like what do you do with this fort that’s being given to the state, if you look backwards it’s like, well, we’ll just build on it, no problem. But if you look forwards to the reality of sea-level rise, you go, No, no, this has got to be open land.

Tom Ashbrook (host of On Point):  This must put, I don’t know, people with that perspective right up against, though, development interests who want to build there, want to do business and people who want to live there.

Stiles:  Well, this is the struggle we’ve had.  We’ve been at this for about four or five years at the local level throughout eastern Virgnia, and it gets down to it.  The landowner goes, Look, I can build by right here and you’re telling me, fifty years, maybe the water’s coming up, get out of my way, I should be able to build. What’s mitigating it is the insurance companies are withdrawing from this part of the state–All State, State

Farm, Nation Wide. U.S.A.A., Farmers, Virginia Mutual, will either not write new policies or will have very restrictive modifications to new policies along the tidal shoreline. Increasingly, Lloyds of London, you know the insurer of last resort, is where people are turning to for their insurance. And even they aren’t writing in some places.”  

More recently, Mr. Stiles posted this comment about Fort Monroe at the website for National Parks Traveler: 

Given that this region of Virginia has the highest rate of sea level rise on the east coast (measured at 1.45 feet over the last century) and that Ft. Monroe is on a barrier island just a few feet above sea level, any further, permanent development on this land is folly. We have documented the withdrawal of nearly 75 % private insurance companies who would write hazard and storm insurance for this land (not to be confused with federal flood insurance), bringing the economic viability of any development on this land into question. To protect the taxpayers of Virginia, the best and highest use of the land outside of the historic fort and related structures is land is open space.

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3. Significance of Fort Monroe’s natural resources to the Chesapeake Bay:

Text by Mark Perreault, President of CFMNP

We believe this property, with its remarkable history, architecture and natural resources, and its accessibility to I-64 only a mile away, should become a public grandstand for the Chesapeake Bay, a place where tens and hundreds of thousands will come and for the first time have a personal experience with the Chesapeake Bay. By making Fort Monroe into an iconic gem for the nation (which will require a national park unit there, for a number of reasons), we serve the mission of a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay by introducing it to tens and hundreds of thousands of citizens who otherwise have little or no opportunity to experience the Bay. Improvements to the Bay require government money, and lots of it, and gaining support for those expenditures will require ever more political support, and that means a citizenry who are aware of the Bay and interested in its health.

Chesapeake Bay Executive Order

“On May 12, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order that recognizes the Chesapeake Bay as a national treasure and calls on the federal government to lead a renewed effort to restore and protect the nation’s largest estuary and its watershed.” (CB order website).  The order also supports the preservation of the history, culture, and recreational resources of the Bay.  Below are excerpts (with boldface for emphasis) that refer to these equally valuable assets:

CHESAPEAKE BAY PROTECTION AND RESTORATION

May 12, 2009

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America and in furtherance of the purposes of the Clean Water Act of 1972, as amended (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.), and other laws, and to protect and restore the health, heritage, natural resources, and social and economic value of the Nation’s largest estuarine ecosystem and the natural sustainability of its watershed, it is hereby ordered as follows:

PART 7 – EXPAND PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE CHESAPEAKE BAY AND CONSERVE LANDSCAPES AND ECOSYSTEMS

Sec. 701. (a) Agencies participating in the Committee shall assist the Secretary of the Interior in development of the report addressing expanded public access to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and conservation of landscapes and ecosystems required in subsection 202(e) of this order by providing to the Secretary:

(v) a description of landscapes and ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that merit recognition for their historical, cultural, ecological, or scientific values; and

(vi) options for conserving these landscapes and ecosystems.

(b) In developing the report addressing expanded public access on agency lands to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and options for conserving landscapes and ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay, as required in subsection 202(e) of this order, the Secretary of the Interior shall coordinate any recommendations with State and local agencies in the watershed and programs such as the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, and the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.

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4. Economic significance of Fort Monroe’s open space

Comment by Dr. James Koch, Old Dominion University professor of economics, ODU President Emeritus, and author of the annual State of the Region report: 

“Still, of all the factors that currently challenge the availability of open space and parks in Hampton Roads, it is the progressive and almost relentless conversion of these areas to residential and commercial use that is most ominous, for once unsettled land has been urbanized with residents and structures, it seldom reverts to open space or park status.

If another 50 years pass that devour open space at the same rate as the last 50 years, then we will have eliminated a huge swath of land that could have been turned into parks or preserved as open space for all to enjoy. We will have made an almost irrevocable decision that parks and open space are not going to play significant roles in our urban future.

The political diversity and geographical breadth of Hampton Roads (a euphemistic way to explain an absence of regional unity) have tended to exacerbate this tendency toward narrowly defined, disconnected initiatives. No single body serves as an open-space advocate for the entire region.

The quality of life and the ultimate sustainability of a growing region like Hampton Roads depend on managing conservation as well as development in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner.” 

Dr. Koch, in answer to a question about Fort Monroe on the local PBS radio program “Hearsay” (Oct. 9, 2006):

“Once something is built up, almost never is it turned back into parkland, and so we have a unique opportunity now with Fort Monroe and some other space within the region to essentially preserve that forever, for posterity. … In the case of Fort Monroe, I think it might be possible to do some things that are commercial there along with some things that are park-like and preserving open space, and I’d hope that our decision makers would look at it that way, because that is really … priceless, terribly valuable oceanfront land that could be just an absolutely magnificent public open space.”

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5. The importance of the natural context of historic architecture 

Comment by Richard Moe, President of National Trust for Historic Preservation

“There was a time when preservationists devoted their efforts to saving individual historic buildings, often paying little attention to the surroundings in which these landmarks stood.  Happily, those days are gone: We’ve learned the importance of preserving context, recognizing that a property’s setting–including views to and from the site itself–enhances its significance as a historic artifact and as a tool for understanding the past more fully. Efforts to preserve context have been successfully carried out at historic sites all over the country. Some 50 years ago, steps were taken to preserve the pastoral view across the Potomac River that George Washington enjoyed from Mount Vernon, and similar efforts have helped prevent visual intrusions on the hilltops near Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.”