When a Preservation Organization Opposess Preservation

If you are a regular reader, you know I have spoken often in support of preservation efforts at Brandy Station, and of the Brandy Station Foundation.

My connection to the foundation goes back a couple of decades, I guess.  Back in the early 1990s, I became a regular reader of Blue & Gray Magazine.  We were still living in an analog world back then – maybe at most the good old AOL chat rooms and a few web sites with the Ashokan Farewell MIDI playing – so most of our preservation “news” came through such periodicals.  I started following developments at Brandy Station, Virginia.  THAT battlefield had my attention for many reasons.  But figuring high on the list was the notion of saving a battlefield from development.

The concept hit me like a fresh breeze.  As a child, I’d stood at Carnton Plantation at Franklin, Tennessee and asked, “they fought the battle across the town?”  The idea of preventing similar development across a likewise important battlefield struck a cord with me.  I was in.  So I sent dues to the Brandy Station Foundation and to the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS).

Over the years, the newsletters and renewal notices chased me through overseas mail.  I kept my interest, albeit from a distance.  Then one day in April 1996, I opened my mailbox greeted by “Victory at Brandy Station” in bold letters at the top of that issue of Blue & Gray.  Benton Ventures, facing foreclosure, would stop plans to build a racetrack and sell land to preservationists.  WIN!  WIN!

Later that summer I made my first trip to the field.  Armed with one of the “General’s Tours,” I drove about the area.  I’d allocated an hour to tour a battlefield that really requires a day.  So I didn’t take away much more than the recognition of the great victory….

NOT that of the Civil War combatants, but rather that of WE preservationists who “fought the good fight” to prevent another battlefield falling under the bulldozers, paving machines, and dump-trucks.

Years past, and life took me in different directions.  Perhaps with  the recognition of a “win” comes a sense of complacency.  I eventually rolled over my membership into Civil War Preservation Trust (now Civil War Trust), but Brandy Station slipped from my list as I looked at other battlefields.  After all, Brandy Station was saved, right?

Not exactly.  In 2008 while on one of “Bud” Hall’s tours of Brandy Station, I learned there was still more to be done at Brandy Station.  At his urging, I rejoined Brandy Station Foundation.  Two years later, I was honored with a request to join the foundation’s board.  I was in the thick of the efforts, carrying forward with the work I’d watched through the newsletters many years before.

During my time on the board, we discussed many important issues.  But I began to notice a tone from some members that bothered me.  Nothing direct, just statements like “we should just let that go”  or “we don’t want to upset the landowner.”  But I did raise exception when one member felt the foundation needed to “avoid becoming radical preservationists.”

Yes, as with any organization, there is internal friction and some politics at play.  Nothing unusual there.  Personally I just don’t have time for such.  With my day-job bringing additional demands which would prevent me from attending board meetings, I opted for the easy way out.  In December I decided that I would step down from the board, with an offer to remain active with the foundation where I could.

That was a mistake.

As my tenure on the board came to a close in March, the foundation’s board split over revelations about the incoming president – Joe McKinney.   I was at the fore of the discussion.  I asked questions and looked for answers.  What was offered left me with many reservations.  But in the end, I was a “lame duck” member of the board.  While other board members’ reservations turned into resignations, I had the liberty of simply letting the clock tick down.

Earlier this month, my mistake – leaving the board – came back to haunt me.

Early in May, a friend brought my attention to the construction along Flat Run near Fleetwood Hill.  Soon, friends across the Civil War online community reached out to me for details and comments.  So, I contacted the foundation’s board, in the name of a standing member of Brandy Station Foundation, and asked for information.  Little came forth.

I asked for a meeting at the site.  After first refusing, I finally convinced McKinney to meet me.   On site, it seemed McKinney was more prepared to provide a tour of the battlefield and “school” me on property lines, than to discuss the issues.  At one point he even asked what standing I had to ask about the battlefield in the first place (which was quickly dismissed when I reaffirmed my membership in the foundation).

I asked for particulars about what the foundation’s board was doing in reaction.  Specifically – when did the board found out about the digging and what actions were under consideration.  I was told that the land owner and McKinney had spoken; that McKinney had brought the issue to the board (and that was only described in vague terms); and the board was satisfied.

I looked for some statement that would indicate some “public” stance.  I pointed out, while bulldozers were working over the land mind you (!), that the ground in question was within protected core battlefield.   I pointed out that the landowner not only had to acquire permits, but also had to hold a public hearing.  At best McKinney offered a rambling statement about “private property”, “reversible changes” and “easements.”  I went as far to try and collect those thoughts for him, suggesting a “stance” the foundation might make.  He declined.  At the end of our meeting I recited back to him a few sentences that I understood his position to be.  He agreed that was a fair statement, and we parted.

I put that statement on the post filed that day and in the spirit of fairness, invited McKinney to point out any inaccuracies.  He promptly clarified points about when the board was notified about the construction.  So I updated the post.  And I also asked McKinney to reconsider a “public” statement on the issue.  He waved that off again.

Days later, news came that legal action halted construction at the site.  This was indeed good news.  But with heavy rains, the dam (which even an untrained eye like mine could tell would cause drainage problems) brought on unintended consequences.  Further, from the public statements, I had reason to question BOTH accounts McKinney gave me regarding the board’s notification about the construction.

So I sent a set of questions to the board, as a member of the foundation:

Why was this issue was not brought forward promptly in the first week of May?
Why did the board hesitate to act?
What was discussed and with whom?
How does BSF plan to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future?

McKinney refused to answer any of these.  Not even to a member, in good standing, of a registered 501(c)(3) organization.  After all, I’ve paid my dues and donated 80 hours or so of service in the last six months, am I not entitled to a few answers, even if provided in confidence?  Only after receiving several dismissive emails (and some rather derogatory messages from board members), did McKinney throw me a bone.   He offered up the board’s meeting minutes from April 20 – NOT the May 4 meeting that he claimed the board discussed the construction issue.  It was all a ruse to buy time and keep me busy while other actions were taking place.

On the same day, perhaps with emails crossing with mine in transit, McKinney directed a “new” foundation policy posted to their web site.  Eric Wittenberg ran the full text on his site, but I will cite one section in particular:

…However, in pursuing our goals, we are mindful that landowners have certain rights with regard to the property that they own.  As a result, we believe that it is generally not productive to officially oppose common property improvements, particularly when those improvements are reversible.  Also, we do not oppose landowners who conduct agricultural activities on battlefield property….

That statement was, I believe, directed specifically at the objections I raised while discussing the matter on site with McKinney.  In short, this is a blanket statement proclaiming the foundation, and its members, have no justification to stop the destruction of battlefield lands by legal means.

Reading that paragraph, I realized my mistake and failure.   Had I been on the board, I would not have let that policy stand.  I would have lobbied with every known rule of order to kill the proclamation before it was issued.  But when the battlefield and foundation needed me, I was out of position to help.

When the policy went out to the web last Wednesday, I did the only proper thing I could do.  I renounced my membership in the Brandy Station Foundation.  The organization is no longer a preservation group.  I will not offer my support to promote the destruction of the very ground the organization claims to defend.

So ends my relationship with the Brandy Station Foundation.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “When a Preservation Organization Opposess Preservation

  1. This is, unfortunately, actually the course nature takes in a great many cases. How many state utility commissions, originally set up to regulate a monopoly and prevent abuse of consumers, have become advocates for the utility they were supposed to be watchdogging? (Just about all of them.) So what’s really needed is a new Brandy Station organization. The old one is now window dressing for local developers.

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