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By Sue Curry Jones
Douglas County Commissioners met last Thursday and finalized their decision to “opt out” of the Ozarks Highlands National Heritage Area. The vote of the commission was unanimous –– opting out was the best choice for Douglas County land owners.
The National Heritage Area (NHA) program is an initiative that has been organized at the federal level to preserve land sites and ethos distinctive to American culture. The main goal of the NHA is to keep local traditions and histories alive and intact by documenting regional cultures and generational customs. In our area, the program is called Ozarks Highlands National Heritage Area, an office associated with the West Plains Art Council, in West Plains.
Presiding Commissioner Larry Pueppke said commissioners had researched the program by talking to other state and county officials where the initiative has been implemented, and for the most part, responses were not favorable. Many had already encountered unforeseen problems and were concerned about their commitment. In fact, one official said ‘it sounded like a good thing until we got in it’.
After reviewing information, the commissioners discovered they had several concerns with the program, but three major worries were cited:
–– the level of authority the NHA can wield [over private property owners] to preserve historical landmarks and cultural sites from use, change or destruction;
–– the notion designated areas are earmarked without compensation to the landowner; and,
–– once a region is a geographic member, it is physically impossible to opt out.
Prior to making final judgment, Pueppke said commissioners met or discussed the topic by phone with Rep. Tony Dugger and officials from Texas, Wright, Shannon, Oregon, Ozark, Howell and Denton counties. Except for Howell county, the others contacted were concerned and considering opting out.
On Feb. 17, commissioners sent a certified letter to Kathleen Morrissey of the West Plains Art Council, and stated the following:
“After receiving information from concerned property owners and researching National Heritage Areas within other States, we have problems that concern us.
“We here in Douglas County are proud of our Heritage and enjoy sharing it with others, but we will not do this at the risk of losing any part of our individual freedom.
“Because of this risk we, in Douglas County, have chosen to opt-out of the Ozarks Highlands National Heritage Area.”
Prior to sending the letter to Morrissey, Pueppke discussed the commission’s intentions by phone and verified the process for keeping Douglas County out of the program.
Commissioners felt it was best to err on the side of protecting county landowners as there were too many unknowns and conflicting details. It was noted that other heritage programs are available for consideration and may be a better fit for Douglas County.
During Thursday’s meeting, the upcoming bridge work scheduled for Douglas County was also discussed. Pueppke, along with commissioner Danny Dry, both acknowledged they had not been notified of the bridge projects until they read about it in the newspaper. They said a meeting has now been set with MoDOT in Springfield to discuss traffic detours, county road conditions and other issues that will be associated with the alternative routes and new traffic patterns.