New heritage area is like Cool Whip: A tasty froth

Fireworks over Lake Union
Fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union, which is part of a new King County maritime heritage area. Image courtesy Northwest Seaport.
Politicians love symbolic actions, especially when they’re sending a message to Congress without any cost at home. That’s the most realistic way to interpret a move by the King County Council (which governs Seattle’s home county) this week to create a county maritime heritage area. The action covers all of the county’s saltwater shore on Puget Sound and the freshwater shoreline on Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. All the freshwater shore is within Seattle’s city limits. The county action a good thing, but only as far as it goes.

The new ordinance takes particular pains to head off any cries of “takings” or other property-rights nonsense by Tea Party fanatics or otherwise ignorant property owners. An email by King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, whose entire district is inside liberal Seattle’s city limits, says the ordinance “carries no regulatory, procedural, or property management constraints. It is intended solely to support heritage and tourism potential.” In other words, it does nothing concrete; it’s symbolic only, and even then, it only touches “potential,” a philosophical construct for something that doesn’t exist, but might. Wrap your head around that logic.

Passing the ordinance is part of a long-term strategy by maritime heritage enthusiasts and tourism promoters in Washington State to encourage Congress to create a national maritime heritage area covering all of the state’s Pacific Coast and the inland shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. So far, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has balked, persuaded by extremists that a national heritage area designation is the first step by a cynical group of historic preservationists to dominate the planet with their evil, er, historic designations. The Legislature has also backed off a similar idea at the state level for similar, vacuous reasons.

Politicians at all levels need to grow a spine on this issue. No one seriously believes property rights are threatened or even annoyed by a maritime heritage area designation. The truth is that elected officials don’t want to spend the political capital to push hard for a heritage area because the benefits to them, beyond the warm-fuzzies among heritage enthusiasts, are minimal. A symbolic heritage ordinance allows them (in all sincerity, no doubt) to claim a moral victory without taking any territory.

Do you support a national heritage area for Washington State?

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