County seeks cash for land to expand Arlington cemetery

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A trial underway in federal court will decide whether the U.S. government must pay up to $21 million to compensate a Virginia county for a parcel of land taken to expand Arlington National Cemetery.

The cemetery expansion project is expected to add 50,000 to 60,000 burial spaces and extend its ability to accommodate new burials by 19 years — until 2060, under the current eligibility requirements. Work on the expansion has already begun and will not be halted no matter what the judge decides at the trial’s conclusion.

At issue is how much money, if any, the federal government must pay to Arlington County for the nine acres (3.6 hectares) of land it took from the county to accommodate the expansion.

The federal government says it’s fulfilling its duties by replacing and improving the road network on the cemetery’s southern border, including significant improvements to a highway, Columbia Pike, that serves as a primary commuter route.

The county, on the other hand, contends that it also should be compensated for a 4-acre (1.6-hectare) parcel that could be developed into housing if it were rezoned. The county says the plot of land is particularly valuable in a region that is starved of adequate housing and is within walking distance to the Pentagon and the new Amazon headquarters being built in the county.

The condemnation that facilitated the cemetery expansion has been the subject of discussions and negotiations for more than 20 years. Despite urging from U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema that the two sides settle their dispute, no agreement was reached, and a bench trial began Monday that is expected to last the better part of the week.

The early negotiations contemplated a land swap in which the county would receive a developable plot of land from the federal government in exchange for what it was ceding on the cemetery’s border.

But the negotiations went nowhere and in 2017, the Army opted to condemn the property without a negotiated agreement. Since then, the county has been focused on ensuring it receives what it believes is a fair price for the land that was taken.

The federal government says improvements to the roadway adequately compensate the county. The improvements to Columbia Pike make it significantly wider and straighter, adding sidewalks and bike paths. The bike paths, as an example, widen the road’s footprint and necessarily take away space that could have been used for burials, former cemetery superintendent Katharine Kelley testified Monday.

But the Army agreed to the wider configuration, in part to help the county placate “a very vocal and somewhat powerful bike constituency” that demanded the path’s inclusion, Kelley said.

The Justice Department also argued that the federal government deeded the land to the county in the 1950s and 1960s under the condition that it be used only for roads, so a multimillion-dollar housing development would be impermissible.

“The county is looking for a windfall from the federal government using the very road the federal government conveyed to the county for free,” Justice Department attorney Emma Hollowell said during opening statements.

The county says nothing in the deeds restricts it from developing the land and that it has longstanding policy commitments to address a housing shortage that the land in question could help ameliorate.

“A vacant multi-acre land parcel is a rare asset within a County comprising only 26 total square miles,” lawyers for the county wrote in their trial brief. An appraisal conducted for the county in 2020 concluded that the land would be worth $21 million if it were developed into about 50 townhouses.

In 2021, Brinkema ruled in favor of the federal government. But the county appealed, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond vacated her ruling and sent the case back for trial.

The cemetery — which dates back to the Civil War and is the final resting place for more than 400,000 service members, veterans and their families — estimates that the expansion will be completed in 2027.

The cemetery’s life could be extended further under changes proposed in 2019 that would significantly restrict the eligibility for burial there. That proposal is still making its way through the rulemaking process.