Plans for WWII Memorial on Hold (The Washington Post)

By Bill Miller, The Washington Post

Plans to begin construction of the World War II Memorial were put on hold yesterday amid questions about the legality of a series of votes taken by the National Capital Planning Commission that approved the project’s design.

Officials insisted the delay was a temporary move to give them time to study the legality of some votes cast by former commission chairman Harvey B. Gantt. Although Gantt’s term expired in January 1999, he continued to serve on the commission and cast votes that approved design plans. One of those votes came in September, when Gantt was part of a 7-to-5 majority that approved the final design for the memorial on the Mall.

The delay came as officials were on the verge of naming a general contractor to oversee the project. Construction was supposed to begin soon after that. Officials have said work will take up to 30 months, with completion targeted for 2003.

Denise Liebowitz, an NCPC spokesman, said chairmen traditionally have remained on the job until they were replaced. Gantt continued to serve until December, when President Bill Clinton named Richard L. Friedman to the post.

The NCPC, the central planning agency for the federal government in the Washington area, reviews federal construction proposals and evaluates federal improvement projects for the Office of Management and Budget. The legislation that established it permitted the chairman to serve until replaced. But when that law was amended in 1973, Liebowitz said, the language inadvertently was dropped.

Liebowitz said the commission was looking into this to determine if any action must now be taken but that officials considered the issue a “legal, technical matter,” adding, “We don’t expect this to affect any decisions the commission makes.”

The commission votes on a host of projects, reviewing plans for monuments and memorials and other high-profile federal projects, as well as issues such as the location and design of post offices and other federal facilities.

But opponents of the memorial site, who have filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project, said they hoped the commission will reconsider its previous votes and reopen discussions about the project. Gantt “very much determined the tenor of the discussion or lack of discussion,” about the memorial, said Judy Scott Feldman, who chairs the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, the lead plaintiff in the suit.

Much debate has focused upon the location of the memorial at the Rainbow Pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. The vote approving the site’s location was taken in July 1995, when Gantt was in the middle of his term.

The coalition seeks a court order to stop memorial construction while it challenges administrative procedures, including actions taken over the years by the NCPC and other agencies.

The coalition won a victory yesterday when U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Park Service from pruning the roots of 14 elm trees at the memorial site. He cited concerns that the pruning — a preliminary step to construction — could endanger the trees.

At yesterday’s hearing, Justice Department lawyer Silas R. DeRoma said the NCPC was concerned about how to handle Gantt’s votes. “The commission believes it’s a serious question that they need to examine,” DeRoma said.

“We don’t know at this point what action they’re going to take,” DeRoma told the judge, saying he will ask the court to put the lawsuit on hold.

Mike Conley, a spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, the memorial sponsor, expressed disappointment in the latest turn of events. “It just seems every time around, there’s another procedural roadblock,” he said. “This is just another delay.”

2001 The Washington Post Company