Coltsville national park passes the House tucked in a defense bill; Senate next

Washington – The long-sought designation of Hartford’s Coltsville neighborhood as a national historic park was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, tucked into a massive $577 billion defense bill.

Now the legislation is headed for the Senate, where there could be a fight over including provisions for public lands in a defense bill.

Efforts have been going on for years to turn the 260-acre site on the bank of the Connecticut River into a national park memorializing the iconic Colt Armory complex as one of the cradles of the American industrial revolution. The armory run by Sam and Elizabeth Colt was a pioneer in precision manufacturing and industrial production.

The Coltsville park boundaries would include the complex of 19th century factories; the Colt residence, called Armsmear; the Church of the Good Shepherd; Colt Park; the Potsdam cottages; and the James Colt House.

A national historic park designation would be a boost to Hartford civic pride, tourism, and development of the area south of downtown.

The site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

Now that the national park designation has been approved in the House on a largely bipartisan vote, 300-119. All Connecticut House members voted for the bill, with the exception of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who often opposes military bills to protest federal cuts in social programs, but voted “no” this time because she opposed the bill’s funds to train Syrian rebels.

The must-pass defense bill will be considered by the Senate before the end of the lame-duck session.

But the section of the bill that would create the Coltsville park and enlarge several other national parks may face trouble.

Retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would hold up the bill if items like Coltsvillle are included.

“I am writing to inform you of my intent to utilize all procedural options at my disposal as a United States Senator, including objecting to any unanimous consent agreements or time limitations, if the National Defense Authorization Act contains extraneous public lands provisions such as authorizing new National Park units, expanding wilderness areas, creating new National Heritage Areas, or expanding the federal land base,” Coburn wrote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Coburn’s threat to delay consideration of the bill with only a few days left in the Senate session could derail the legislation.

But Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the top Republican on the panel, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., issued a statement defending the public lands package.

“These provisions have been under consideration for several years and there is strong support in both Houses for including them in our bill,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who championed the legislation, said it was necessary to put the national park section in the defense bill “because we haven’t had a lands bill since 2009.”

“It’s not over yet,” Larson said, “but I think it’s got a good shot to pass the Senate. (Senators) Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy know the challenges.”

In a joint statement, the senators said, “It won’t be easy to bring it across the finish line, but we will do everything we can to support John’s efforts.”

Much of the Coltsville park area is in private hands. Apartments, private companies and a school occupy parts of the former Colt factories.

But the legislation calls for the owners of the blue-domed East Armory to donate at least 10,000 square feet for a museum. It also promises the National Park Service a “sufficient amount of land” to help create a national park.

The legislation also says the Secretary of Interior may enter into a written agreement with the Connecticut State Library, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Colt Trust, “or other public entities, as appropriate, to gain appropriate  access to Colt-related artifacts for the purposes of having items routinely on display in the East Armory or within other areas of the park to enhance the visitor experience.”

The Congressional Budget Office determined that establishing the park would cost $9 million over a five-year period.

The legislation says that federal funds “made available under a cooperative agreement shall be matched on a 1-to-1 basis by non-federal funds.” Donations to the park could be considered matching funds, the bill says.

The Interior Department has objected to plans for a 12–member commission to help the agency manage the park. Its members would be appointed by leaders of the General Assembly, the mayor of Hartford, Connecticut’s two U.S. senators and others in the state’s political establishment.

The Interior Department wants the National Park Service to run the park instead. So Larson stripped the plans for a commission from his Coltsville bill. But the legislation in the defense bill sets up the “Coltsville National Historical Park Advisory Commission.”

“It’s been in, it’s been out, it’s really insignificant,” Larson said of the commission provision. He said it could be stripped from the plans for the park if the Interior Department continued to object to the plan.

Spokesmen for the Interior Department and the National Park Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lands package in the defense bill would also officially rename the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor in eastern Connecticut “The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor’’.

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