The Flight 93 National Memorial now under development in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, won’t be ready for dedication on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks if land acquisition efforts remain stalled. Deeply concerned about the delays, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has put the negotiators on notice that he’ll order seizure of the land if willing seller agreements are not reached by June 12.
This ultimatum amounts to a “stay of execution,” or if you prefer, a “temporary reversal of an earlier decision.” The Secretary had announced last month that a decision to seize the land had already been made. Now a window of opportunity for a willing seller transfer of ownership has been re-opened, but it will last only until the end of this week.
Secretary Salazar’s threat to use the federal government’s eminent domain authority to acquire key parcels of land for the planned 2,200-acre Memorial is certainly understandable in light of the pressure cooker atmosphere pervading this project. The National Park Service knows it will face a firestorm of criticism and lose valuable political capital if the agency cannot have the Memorial ready (Phase I completed) for its September 11, 2011 dedication. There is barely enough time to meet this hard deadline, so land acquisition has to be completed quickly. The clock is tick, tick, ticking…..
The big holdup right now is the acquisition of seven parcels of privately-owned land totaling about 500 acres. These key parcels, the largest of which is 275 acres, adjoin land already acquired for the Memorial.
In a letter sent last week to Dan Wenk, Acting Director of the National Park Service, Secretary Salazar ordered the NPS to have representatives available in Somerset County from today through Thursday (June 9 through June 11) to meet with the landowners involved and attempt to reach a negotiated settlement. On Friday, June 12, Acting Director Wenk must report the status of the negotiations to Secretary Salazar’s office. Condemnation proceedings are to be initiated if a “willing seller” agreement has not been worked out.
Condemnation is not confiscation. If the federal government seizes the required land parcels, the landowners must be paid fair market value for their property.
Secretary Salazar has made it clear that eminent domain proceedings should be avoided if at all possible, and has accordingly urged the negotiating parties to reach a settlement in their collective interest. We will know soon enough if the Secretary’s ultimatum has the desired effect. Meanwhile, the landowners – people that Secretary Salazar has praised as “good neighbors” and incidental "victims of 9/11" -- have claimed that the government has not treated them fairly, and that there is simply not enough time to work out willing seller agreements before the end of the week.