Washington, DC — The Cuyahoga Valley National Park has acquired nearly 200 homes and allowed many of the residents to remain after their rights to occupancy have expired by issuing questionable special use permits, according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This aggressive effort to house renters within a national park anchors an unprecedented effort to establish and sustain a rural community, complete with a winery and hobby farms, financed by taxpayer funds.
The Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio was created in 1974 to establish a viable recreation area almost entirely from non-federal lands. In the process of acquiring lands, park officials purchased more than 200 homes under terms that allowed occupants to remain either under life tenancies or with occupancy rights for less than life. None of the occupied dwellings are historic.
Typically, national parks manage their reserved occupancy rights as they expire in order to convert the former private residences to public park purposes. In Cuyahoga, by contrast, park officials maintain private rental housing even in scores of houses now wholly owned by the federal government:
- Nearly 140 houses (31 expired life estates and 108 terminated rights of occupancy) whose occupancy rights have ended are still occupied;
- Cuyahoga has issued special use permits to authorize continuing rentals without any apparent legal authority; and
- For years, the park superintendent has formally solicited renters to remain beyond lease terms.
When combined with the 1,200 acres of land the park intends to lease for agricultural enterprises, a significant portion of the 19,000 Federal acres in the park is off-limits to the public it is intended to serve.
“Nothing in law authorizes the Park Service to build a Cotswolds on the Cuyahoga,” stated PEER Board member Frank Buono, a former long-time Park Service manager, referring to an area of popular English countryside villages. “This so-called working landscape the National Park Service purports to concoct is more of a Disney production, an illusion of dilettante farms.”
The housing may be an unwritten part of a costly program, called the “Countryside Initiative,” of leasing parkland for hobby farms – winery, herb farm, and free-range chicken ranch – in which park officials require applicants to have a “significant off-farm revenue stream,” according to meeting notes obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act.
“These farms and houses detract from the park mission of conserving scenery, wildlife, and natural and historical objects,” Buono added, pointing to the damage that park official acknowledge the farm operations have caused for wildlife, wetlands and other natural resources.
Nonetheless, in October 2004, the National Park Service gave John Debo, the Cuyahoga superintendent, an award for his Countryside Initiative, citing his “creativity” and noting that “the potential is great to apply this initiative to thousands of acres of rural landscapes found throughout national park units.”